Why a ruling on assault weapons in Colorado could matter

A judicial recent block Colorado County’s assault weapons ban may be an early sign of a trend for local municipalities with similar laws.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Charlotte Sweeney issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Boulder County’s assault weapons ban following a lawsuit filed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights group in Colorado. The ban, passed Aug. 2 by the Boulder County Board of Commissioners, included the manufacture and sale of AR-15 rifles.

Adam Winker, a constitutional law professor and gun policy expert at UCLA, says the decision is important because “the constitutionality of assault weapons bans is likely to be one of the next battlegrounds in the Second Amendment.” Referring to a a recent Supreme Court case that expanded gun rights in New York, he explained that it “doesn’t say anything specific about banning weapons of war. But the court adopted a new test that will make it harder for bans on the use of combat weapons to survive judicial review.

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While these cases may not on the surface be about the same things (the New York case was about handguns and self-defense, and the Colorado one is about assault weapons), experts say the Supreme Court’s decision could also affect other decisions about weapons.

“The court said that gun laws should be consistent with the gun laws of 1800. So, given the historical context, it seems very possible that the courts will strike down assault weapons bans,” Winkler says, although he also points out that courts have historically been split on assault weapons bans.

In his ruling, Judge Sweeney cited the Supreme Court decision as the reason for the pause. “The Supreme Court recently held that people have a constitutional right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home, and New York’s licensing regime for public carry licenses impermissibly interfered with that right,” the judge explain in her decision. “Based on this admittedly limited information, and with a liberal analysis of this factor, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

That was it second time In the past few months, a judge has barred a Colorado city from enacting an assault weapons ban. In July, a judge in Superior, Colo., issued a TRO preventing the city from enforcing certain gun restrictions and also cited the New York case.

“The Supreme Court basically made it clear that it wants courts to be more skeptical of gun laws and do more to protect the Second Amendment,” Winkler says.

In response to the Boulder County decision, the city of Boulder said this temporary ban would allow for “more legal coordination between neighboring jurisdictions.” “This decision in no way demonstrates a lack of resolve on the part of the Boulder City Council or administration. We believe these bans are both necessary and legal,” City Attorney Teresa Taylor Tate said in a statement.

In June, the Boulder City Council passed six gun control laws aims to reduce gun violence. That included banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and raising the age at which someone can buy a gun from 18 to 21. Those measures were also challenged by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who filed five lawsuits in Colorado over gun regulations.

“ANOTHER FALL,” Rocky Mountain gun owners tweeted about Boulder County’s decision.

The judge’s break is set for 14 days while the court proceedings in the case continue.

The last federal assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004 and was never successfully renewed. Today, there are only seven states — New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut and California — plus the District of Columbia that have laws banning assault weapons. Minnesota and Virginia regulate but do not ban assault weapons.

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Some critics have questioned the effectiveness of bans on the use of combat weapons. During Fourth of July Parade in Highland Park, Illinois., this summer a gunman carried out a mass shooting, killing seven people and injuring dozens more. Highland Park has had an assault ban since 2013.

“It is difficult to know exactly how effective bans on the use of combat weapons are. The laws are pretty easy to get around,” Winkler says, adding that people can simply buy a gun in another state, remove certain military features by removing the bayonet lug or folding stock, or use ghost gun so that it does not violate any prohibition rules that may exist.

Still, some gun policy experts see benefit from these bans at both the local and national levels. Louis Clarevas, author of Rampage Nation: Protecting America from Mass Shootings, investigated the 10-year period of the assault weapons ban and found that there was a significant decrease in mass shootings.

During a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, President Joe Biden expressed his goal of rolling back the federal ban on assault weapons. “I’ve done it once before and I’ll do it again,” he said.

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Write to Josiah Bates c [email protected].

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