The Connecticut Citizens Defense League says its membership has nearly tripled — to about 7,500 people — in the past few months, ever since state officials began discussing the possibility of gun control measures in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Now the organization is attempting to turn that manpower into legal might. The group is one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, May 22 challenging the constitutionality of sweeping legislation recently approved by the Connecticut legislature.
The Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL) and Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen are taking specific aim at new laws that would limit the size of ammunition clips (known as magazines) and add 100 firearms to the listed of banned assault weapons in the state. They say many of the design features now prohibited on weapons sold in Connecticut enhance safety, accuracy and ease of use, and have long been standard in firearms design.
"We’re attacking the broadness of the definition of assault weapons, and the ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, because this new law eviscerates the core right to defend yourself in your home," said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Brian T. Stapleton, a partner in the Goldberg Segalla office in White Plains, N.Y. "It amounts to a ban on what are now commonly possessed weapons and standard magazines."
Stapleton is also the lead trial counsel for a similar challenge to a New York assault weapons law. The plaintiffs note there are additional challenges in Colorado and Maryland, and the results of all four lawsuits will help shape firearms law nationwide. "I’ve been working with gun rights groups at a national level for many years," Stapleton said.
In a prepared statement, CCDL President Scott Wilson said he wished to thank the National Rifle Association, "whose vision and stalwart defense of citizens’ fundamental rights has helped make this important legal challenge possible."
According to a news release issued by the pro-Second Amendment groups, other plaintiffs include an elderly widow who lives alone in a rural area where the emergency response time of a resident state trooper is 45 minutes; a rabbi whose Bridgeport area synagogue has been broken into by intruders; and a young professional woman whose efforts to defend herself are made more difficult by the loss of an arm due to cancer. Also joining the lawsuit are several retailers whose businesses are affected by the gun control measures.
The plaintiffs say state officials overreacted to a tragedy caused by one mentally disturbed person. "This law will do nothing to prevent a tragedy or solve the problem of crime committed with guns," Bob Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said in a prepared statement. "Instead of violating constitutional rights, we need to get serious about addressing violence and mental illness."
The lawsuit names as defendants Governor Dannel Malloy, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and Reuben Bradford, the commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. Additionally, it names the state’s attorneys in each of Connecticut’s judicial districts.
The state Attorney General’s Office defends all actions brought against the state. "Our office will review this complaint and respond in court," the AG’s Office said in a prepared statement. "However, it is our belief that this legislation is lawful, and the Office of the Attorney General is prepared to vigorously defend the law against this and any other potential court challenge."
Michael Lawlor, a former co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee who is now a top criminal justice advisor to Malloy, said the lawsuit was not unexpected.
"Over the last 25 years," said Lawlor, "Connecticut has passed a whole series of reasonable gun control laws, and each and every time those have been challenged on constitutionality grounds. Each and every time, [the opponent] have lost. So it’s very predictable that the NRA crowd would go to court and argue that it’s unconstitutional. It’s also very predictable that they’ll be unsuccessful."
Part of his constitutional challenge, Stapleton said, is the fact that "there are large populations of people in Connecticut who lawfully owned these weapons prior to the ban." With respect to the requirement now that people have to register these magazines, he said, "that puts a very onerous burden on exercising the right to bear arms."
Stapleton cites the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which he said bars the government from banning weapons that are "commonly used" by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes. Firearms on Connecticut’s banned list "are commonly possessed weapons that hold more than 10 rounds. These are not new items; these are not novelties," Stapleton said.
But Lawlor said the new Connecticut laws are not comparable to the District of Columbia statute struck down in Heller.
The D.C. law, he said, made it virtually impossible for a private individual to own a firearm.
"The bottom line is, if you make it virtually impossible for citizens to have guns, you may have a constitutional problem," Lawlor said. "In Connecticut, it’s clear that if you’re a law-abiding citizen you have every right to own guns, and keep them for defense of yourself. No one’s arguing that point. But just as you can’t have a nuclear submarine, and you can’t have an attack helicopter, and you can’t have a .50-caliber machine gun — you can’t have assault rifles or large-capacity magazines."
Stapleton said he is preparing a motion for a preliminary injunction that will ask the court to stop Connecticut from implementing parts of the law — including the ban on sales of new large capacity magazines and the requirement for registering existing magazines — until a decision in the lawsuit is reached.
Stapleton said there is no doubt the Newtown shootings were a tragedy. But he said the new Connecticut law doesn’t really address the safety concerns of schools and communities.
"The problem with these [legislative] fixes that they are imposing is … they are cosmetic fixes," he said. "You can ban a rifle with a grenade launched on the barrel, but what we’re talking about here, with the size of the magazines, they have nothing to do with making a firearm more or less lethal. These reactions are hasty and are not well thought out and they have dramatically impacted these core constitutional rights."•