AR-15s and other assault weapons with large magazines are not protected by the United States' Second Amendment and can be lawfully banned, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.
The federal appeals court – based in Richmond, Virginia, and known for its conservative bent – upheld a Maryland prohibition of assault weapons in unvarnished language, writing that "the banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not constitutionally protected arms."
The Fourth Circuit ruling re-affirms previous court decisions that also placed assault weapons outside the scope of Second Amendment protections of gun ownership. But this ruling – decided 10-4 – goes further by addressing the AR-15 by name, tracing the weapon's military pedigree from the M-16 rifle and finding that the AR-15 can be banned based on the plain language of the Supreme Court's infamous Heller decision. (That ruling, written by the late activist conservative justice Antonin Scalia, discovered a constitutional right for individual gun ownership.)
The Heller Court had ruled that "weapons that are most useful in military service – M-16 rifles and the like – may be banned." The Fourth Circuit picks up that language and runs with it, judging that the semiautomatic AR-15retains key military characteristics that make the M-16 a "devastating and lethal weapon of war" and that the AR-15 can likewise be banned. "Simply put," the Court ruled, "AR-15-type rifles are 'like' M16 rifles under any standard definition of that term."
The Fourth Circuit ruling tossed aside a distinction between automatic and semiautomatic fire that groups like the NRA have long underscored as being pivotal to the regulation of guns:
"Although an M16 rifle is capable of fully automatic fire and the AR-15 is limited to semiautomatic fire, their rates of fire (two seconds and as little as five seconds, respectively, to empty a thirty round magazine) are nearly identical. Moreover, in many situations, the semiautomatic fire of an AR-15 is more accurate and lethal than the automatic fire of an M16."
The Fourth Circuit judged that military-grade lethality, not capacity for automatic fire, is the key litmus test imposed by the Supreme Court. "We identify the line that Heller drew as not being between fully automatic and semiautomatic firearms, but between weapons that are most useful in military service and those that are not." Even though weapons like the AR-15 can be used for self-defence, the court concluded, they "are unquestionably most useful in military service." Therefore, the court declared, "we are compelled by Heller to recognise that those weapons and magazines are not constitutionally protected."
Unless and until the Supreme Court intervenes, the fight over the AR-15 and similar assault rifles is now purely a question of politics. The NRA can yell and scream about the Second Amendment all it wants, but the constitutional trump card is – at least for now – out of play.