In a case that had drawn attention from the Gun Owners Action League and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Supreme Judicial Court today upheld a state law requiring trigger locks on guns kept in people's homes.
In a victory for law enforcement and advocates of gun control, the state's highest court ruled that the Second Amendment does not currently apply to states and therefore Massachusetts has the power to regulate gun ownership.
"We conclude that the legal obligation safely to secure firearms in [state law] is not unconstitutional,'' Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the unanimous court.
In a companion ruling, it upheld the convictions of a New Bedford man who had argued that the Second Amendment right to bear arms trumped state law making it a crime for an unlicensed person to have a handgun.
The unanimous decisions by the SJC flowed from a landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller. The Supreme Court said for the first time in that case that the US Constitution's Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own a firearm for self-defense, but the court limited the reach of its ruling to "federal enclaves'' like the District.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a gun ownership case in Illinois in which, legal experts say, the court is likely to determine whether the Second Amendment will now be explicitly extended to the states – and state laws and regulations set up to control the use, sale and storage of firearms.
Gants wrote that an 1875 US Supreme Court ruling called Cruikshank remains in force and gives Massachusetts the authority to chart its own course when it comes to regulating firearms and ammunition.
"Under Cruikshank, the Second Amendment imposes no limitations on the ability of the Massachusetts Legislature to regulate the possession of firearms and ammunition,'' Gants wrote. "These cases are the law of the land until the Supreme Court decides otherwise, and we are therefore bound by them."
Today's ruling came in the case of Richard Runyan, a Billerica man facing prosecution for keeping a rifle under his bed without a trigger lock. Police in 2007 discovered the firearm as they investigated complaints that Runyan's then-18-year-old developmentally disabled son was shooting a BB gun at a neighbor's house.
A Lowell District Court judge tossed the case, citing the Heller ruling. Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr.'s office appealed.
Gants wrote that Massachusetts law requires trigger locks when the gun owner is not at home, and therefore avoids the self-defense concerns raised by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the Heller case.
In the second case, Nathaniel DePina, was arrested by gang officers after a .22-caliber revolver fell out of his clothing. Gants said that DePina loses because the Second Amendment does not apply – and because the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights has never meant that an individual is free to own firearms.
"The defendant's challenge likewise fails under our Massachusetts Constitution, which recognizes no individual right to keep and bear arms,'' Gants wrote, citing the text of Article 17. Article 17 "was intended to provide for the common defense and does not guarantee an individual right to keep and bear arms.''
When today's cases were argued before the SJC last fall, this question of Heller and the reach of the Second Amendment was discussed by the justices.
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