U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan/photo by Carmen Natale U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan. Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM

A federal judge has refused to halt enforcement of New Jersey’s ban on large-capacity firearm magazines, prompting the plaintiffs who filed a challenge to the law to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan of the District of New Jersey ruled on Sept. 28 that the plaintiffs in Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs v. Grewal are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their arguments that limiting magazines to 10 rounds instead of 15 violates their rights under the Second, Fifth and 14th amendments. Lawyers for the plaintiffs appealed Sheridan’s ruling that same day.

Sheridan said the New Jersey law places a minimal burden on lawful gun owners. He said it imposes no new restrictions on the quantity of firearms, magazines or bullets they may possess, and merely limits the lawful capacity of a single magazine. Sheridan also said that New Jersey, a densely populated urban state, has a strong interest in regulating firearms, and that deference is warranted in the Legislature’s conclusion that a restriction on capacity is necessary for public safety.

The judge cited anecdotal evidence from a June 2018 mass shooting at an arts festival in Trenton that lives are saved when a gunman needs to stop shooting to reload. Sheridan said a similar phenomenon was seen in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and at several other shootings.

In the New Jersey case, the state presented testimony from three experts at a series of hearings on the motion in August, and the plaintiffs presented one expert. But Sheridan said the expert testimony was “of little help in its analysis,” citing “questionable data and conflicting studies” that plaintiff’s expert Gary Kleck and defense expert Lucy Allen relied on.

Kleck said the New Jersey law was unlikely to have any detectable effect on the number of firearm deaths, but said it would impair a crime victim’s ability to defend against an attack. Allen, of NERQA Economic Consulting, said in a declaration that it was rare for an individual to fire more than 10 rounds in self-defense.

But Sheridan said the New Jersey law places a minimal burden on the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, since it does not restrict the quantity of firearms, magazines or bullets an individual may possess. “A gun owner preparing to fire more than ten bullets in self-defense can legally purchase multiple magazines and fill them with ten bullets each. The court therefore finds the new law imposes no significant burden, if any, on plaintiff’s Second Amendment right,” Sheridan said.

The suit was filed in June by the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, along with two members of the group, Blake Ellman and Alexander Dembowski. The group’s website says it’s a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association. The association has filed other suits challenging New Jersey firearm regulations, including one to overturn the law imposing limits on who may carry firearms in public.

Large-capacity magazines were prohibited under federal law when Congress adopted a ban on assault weapons in 1994, but that ban expired under a sunset provision in 2004 that was not renewed by lawmakers, Sheridan noted in his ruling. When New Jersey adopted the law on large-capacity magazines in June, the state joined California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York as well as many cities and counties in limiting the possession and sale of magazines to 10 rounds.

A prohibition on large-capacity magazines by New York state was upheld by the Second Circuit in 2015. But in the same ruling, the appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that struck down a law making it illegal for individuals to load more than seven rounds of ammunition in a magazine capable of holding 10 rounds.

Also in 2015, the Ninth Circuit upheld a law passed by the city of Sunnyvale, California, banning magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit ruling.

The plaintiffs are represented by Cooper & Kirk in Washington, D.C., which has represented the NRA in numerous challenges to firearms regulations around the country. David Thompson, managing partner to Cooper & Kirk, did not return a call about the case. Nor did local counsel Daniel Schmutter of Hartman & Winnicki of Ridgewood.

The Office of the Attorney General, which represents the state, said in a Facebook posting, “On Friday night, a federal court listened to our arguments and agreed that New Jersey’s ban on large capacity magazines is constitutional. That’s a big win for public safety.”