Mountain Law: Explaining court decision on Colorado’s gun laws
In 2013, in the wake of a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the Colorado General Assembly enacted gun control legislation that included two new criminal statutes: one banning the sale, possession and transfer of certain “large-capacity magazines;” and another expanding mandatory background checks to some private transfers rather than only commercial purchases.
These new laws were challenged in federal court on constitutional grounds by a group of plaintiffs consisting of individuals who own guns, associations and organizations of gun owners and advocates, and businesses that manufacture or sell magazines and/or firearms. In June 2014, the federal court issued its ruling upholding the constitutionality of the laws. This article focuses on the large-capacity magazine statute and why it was upheld by the federal court.
That statute makes it a crime for a person to possess or transfer a large-capacity magazine after July 1, 2013. The statute generally defines a “large-capacity magazine” as one that holds more than 15 rounds of ammunition. Persons who possessed such magazines on July 1, 2013, and remain in “continuous possession” of them afterward, may continue to keep them legally under a “grandfather clause” in the law. There are other limited exceptions in the law for the benefit of law enforcement.
The focus of the court case was whether the statute violates a person’s lawful ability to defense him or herself under the Second Amendment. The court preliminarily observed that the statute does not regulate firearms at all; it regulates only the size of a magazine. In general, the capacity of the magazine does not affect the operation of the firearm, but simply determines how frequently the firearm must be reloaded if the shooter wishes to keep firing.
The court considered both offensive and defensive implications of the law. It determined that, most of the time when a weapon is used offensively, it is for unlawful purposes such as a mass shooting. In that case, the shooter is attempting to fire as many rounds as possible in as short a time for the purpose of imposing maximum damage. The litigants in the case conceded that a limitation on the size of a magazine could potentially limit the offensive use of a weapon. For instance, there is evidence that some mass shootings, including the Aurora shooting, were stopped when a pause allowed a shooter to be overcome, law enforcement to intercede, or potential victims to flee. In each incident, the pause was created either by the shooter reloading his weapon or there being a malfunction of the firearm.
The court then considered that none of the evidence presented suggested that the general ability of a person to defend him or herself is seriously diminished if magazines are limited to 15 rounds. For example, of the many law enforcement officials called to testify, none were able to identify a single instance in which they were involved where a single civilian fired more than 15 shots in self-defense. Indeed, the record reflected that many law enforcement agencies, including the Colorado State Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the New York City Police Department, equip their own officers with 15-round or smaller magazines. An expert testified that, in many cases, simply displaying a firearm without firing it or firing a single warning shot is sufficient to deter a threat.
In sum, the court found that the magazine size restrictions prescribed by statute might help prevent mass shootings while not overly burdening a person’s lawful ability to defense him or herself for purposes of the Second Amendment. The court therefore upheld the law. The decision is being appealed.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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