Shortly after the shooting deaths of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown last December, the legislature acted quickly to restrict ownership of certain types of firearms.
Even before the Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety was approved, Gov. Dannel Malloy said he expected legal challenges. The law, which limited the size of ammunition clips and added 100 firearms to a list of banned weapons, drew almost immediate constitutional challenges from Second Amendment lawyers.
All told, three lawsuits have been filed. The last of those was the first one dismissed. One Dec. 3, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall rejected the arguments of the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Federation, which had argued that the gun control law should be voided because the legislature deviated from its normal practices in passing the measure.
With one of the lawsuits quickly shot down, another awaiting a decision on whether it should be dismissed, and the third facing an argument for dismissal next month, lawyers on both sides of the gun control debate say it could be a relatively short time until challenges to the law are sorted out.
The state Attorney General’s Office issued a statement praising Hall’s ruling. Spokeswoman Jaclyn Falkowski said the office will continue to defend challenges to the law raised in the remaining lawsuits, including one filed in April on behalf of Disabled Americans For Firearms Rights, and another brought in May by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League and Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen.
“The measures enacted by the General Assembly in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy are entirely appropriate and lawful, both procedurally and substantively,” Falkowski said in the statement. “We will continue to vigorously defense them against any legal challenges, including against any appeal that may be filed of this decision.”
The lawsuit that was just dismissed was brought by the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization whose members include gun stores and manufacturers. The suit argued for the gun law to be overturned because it claimed the law was passed without adequate public input.
The foundation complained that the General Assembly bypassed its normal procedure of holding public hearings on the bill and discussing it in open meetings of legislative committees. After little debate, the House and Senate voted approved the measure on the same day.
Lawrence Keane, the foundation’s senior vice president and general counsel, accused legislators of “acting behind closed doors.”
In the lawsuit, he argued the tactic of designating the bill “as emergency certified” to bypass the committee and hearing process was unconstitutional.
But Hall agreed with the two main arguments raised by Assistant Attorney General Robert J. Deichert, who represented the state, and dismissed the lawsuit. She ruled first that the court lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the legislative act. Secondly, she said, even if the court did have jurisdiction, the allegations raised in the lawsuit failed to show that any wrong-doing occurred on the part of the legislature.
“The common thread,” Diechert wrote in his motion to dismiss the case, “is that where, as here, someone believes the legislature violated its own procedure in enacting a law, the remedy is through the political process, not declaratory or injunctive relief from a federal court.”
Keane said the National Shooting Sports Foundation is considering whether to appeal Hall’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. “We’re obviously disappointed,” Keane said in a prepared statement. “The legislature voted on a 139-page bill that they never read, and we were denied our First Amendment right to advocate for changes in the actual bill that was voted on.”
Still pending in Superior Court in New London is a lawsuit brought on behalf of a group called the Disabled Americans for Firearms, which claims the new restrictions on assault weapon are discriminatory.
Scott Camassar, an attorney with the Law Firm of Stephen M. Reck in North Stonington, said he is seeking a declaratory judgment against the ban. The law bans military-style rifles, such as the AR-15. But those sorts of weapons “with ease of handling, low recoil, adjustable features and customizability” are particularly suited to disabled persons who want to lawfully use a firearm, Camassar said.
A Superior Court judge recently heard arguments in the case, and Camassar is awaiting a ruling on whether that lawsuit might also be dismissed. He’s argued in court documents that “no matter how horrible and terrible Newtown was, the Constitution and laws of our state — and our citizens deserve — more than a feel-good, knee-jerk legislative reaction.”
The third lawsuit, June Shew, et al, v. Dannel P. Malloy, et al, remains pending in federal court. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30, before U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello in Hartford.
The plaintiffs, a group of individual gun owners, claim that the state law violates the rights of citizens to protect themselves. The Shew suit has attracted wider support than the other two cases. In addition to an amicus brief filed by Rachel Baird, a Torrington lawyer who handles many Second Amendment cases, the National Rifle Association has submitted its own brief in support of overturning the Connecticut law.
One of the NRA’s lawyers, David Thompson, of Cooper & Kirk in Washington, D.C., said the case is an important one.
“This case goes right to the fundamental rights of citizens to defend themselves,” Thompson said. “As our complaint reflects, we represent elderly individuals, disabled individuals, people who live in remote locations and all of these individuals need to have access to these so-called assault weapons.”
Brian Stapleton, a Stamford lawyer with the firm Goldberg Segalla, is the lead plaintiff’s lawyer in the lawsuit. He declined requests for comment. But in court papers, he has requested oral arguments to have the law deemed unconstitutional on several grounds, including “the ill-defined vagueness of its terms.”
The ban on assault weapons, Stapleton argues, “not only violates the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, but has caused widespread confusion throughout Connecticut as to how the act is to be implemented and obeyed. The act has also created fear of immediate felony prosecution and imprisonment in the minds of law-abiding citizens throughout Connecticut.”•