Federal Appeals Court throws Maryland AR-15 ban back to state

In a stunning reversal of earlier rulings, a federal appeals court has called into question states that bar possession of AR-15 style rifles and so-called high-capacity magazines, arguing the lower courts ignored the judgement of the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed for all-out gun bans only in the most extreme circumstances.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Maryland’s 2013 ban on AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, AK-47s and standard-capacity magazines infringed on the Second Amendment, sending a lower appeals court ruling back and ordering the judges to re-evaluate the case based on a so-called “strict scrutiny” of whether the ban holds up against fundamental rights.

“We therefore struggle to see how Maryland’s law would not substantially burden the core Second Amendment right to defend oneself and one’s family in the home with a firearm that is commonly possessed by law-abiding citizens for such lawful purposes,” the court said. “Moreover, the [Maryland ban] also reaches every instance where an AR-15 platform semi-automatic rifle or [large capacity magazine] might be preferable to handguns or bolt-action rifles — for example hunting, recreational shooting, or competitive marksmanship events — all of which are lawful purposes protected by the Constitution.”

The ruling comes as gun rights take center stage in the 2016 presidential contest, with both Democrat candidates for the White House arguing for greater federal restrictions on gun possession, including national bans on AR-style rifles.

But even on the heels of mass shootings and terrorist attacks using semi-automatic rifles, polls have shown that Americans are skeptical of outright bans and want to maintain the right the defend themselves with AR-15s.

For its part, the National Rifle Association applauded the ruling.

“The 4th Circuit’s ruling is an important victory for the Second Amendment,” said NRA legislative chief Chris Cox. “Maryland’s ban on commonly owned firearms and magazines clearly violates our fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. The highest level of judicial scrutiny should apply when governments try to restrict our Second Amendment freedoms.”

Writing for the 4th Circuit majority, Chief Judge William Traxler sharply rebuked lower court judges for their justification of the bans, saying Maryland used a “hyper-technical, out of context parsing” of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of “commonly-possessed” arms, twisted the highest court’s wording on “dangerous and unusual weapons” like machine guns to “unusually dangerous” and undercut the lower courts’ reasoning that AR-15s and so-called “large capacity magazines” aren’t useful for home defense.

“In sum, for a law-abiding citizen who, for whatever reason, chooses to protect his home with a semi-automatic rifle instead of a semi-automatic handgun, or possesses an LCM for use in firearms kept in the home, the FSA significantly burdens the exercise of the right to arm oneself at home,” Traxler said.

And in perhaps the most stinging criticism of prior court rulings on the AR ban, Traxler argued it wasn’t enough to impose on a Constitutional right based on what might happen in the future.

“Under the Seventh Circuit’s view, a significant restriction on a fundamental right might be justified by benefits that are quite literally imagined into existence,” Traxler wrote.

The judge also took to task the dissent to the 4th Circuit majority opinion.

“Our distinguished dissenting colleague asserts that we have imprudently and unnecessarily broken with our sister courts of appeal and infers that we will bear some responsibility for future mass shootings,” Traxler chided. “In our view, inferences of this nature have no place in judicial opinions and we will not respond beyond noting this.”

The 4th Circuit remanded the ruling on the constitutionality of Maryland’s AR and standard-capacity magazine ban back to the lower court for a “strict-scrutiny” re-evaluation of the law.

“This is not a finding that Maryland’s law is unconstitutional,” the court wrote. “It is simply a ruling that the test of its constitutionality is different from that used by the district court.”

Reports indicate Maryland’s Democrat Attorney Gen. Brian Frosh will appeal the 4th Circuit ruling.

“There is sound reason to conclude that the Second Amendment affords no protection whatsoever to the assault rifles and shotguns, copycat weapons and large-capacity detachable magazines that are banned by the state of Maryland,” Frosh told the Washington Times.