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Supreme Court Won’t Hear Gun Cases on High-Powered Rifles and Disarming Felons

Supreme Court Won’t Hear Gun Cases on High-Powered Rifles and Disarming Felons

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The Supreme Court declined on Tuesday to hear two sets of Second Amendment challenges: to an Illinois law prohibiting the sale of high-powered guns and high-capacity magazines and to a federal law making it a crime for people convicted of felonies to possess guns.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. said they would have granted the petitions seeking review in the Illinois case.

The court returned cases on the federal law concerning felons to lower courts for reconsideration in light of its recent decision in United States v. Rahimi, which upheld a similar law making it a crime for people subject to domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.

The moves suggested that Supreme Court, which issued two major decisions on guns in the term that ended Monday, is not ready to return to the subject for now.

In his opinion in the Illinois case, Justice Thomas wrote that “we have never squarely addressed what types of weapons are ‘arms’ protected by the Second Amendment.”

He criticized the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Illinois, for a preliminary ruling upholding the law, calling its decision “contrived” and “nonsensical.”

“This court must provide more guidance on which weapons the Second Amendment covers,” Justice Thomas wrote. “By contorting what little guidance our precedents provide, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the Second Amendment does not protect ‘militaristic’ weapons. It then tautologically defined ‘militaristic’ weapons as those ‘that may be reserved for military use.’”

Quoting one of his earlier opinions, Justice Thomas wrote that “Illinois’s ban is ‘highly suspect because it broadly prohibits common semiautomatic firearms used for lawful purposes.’”

The Illinois law barred the sale of what critics call assault weapons, along with high-capacity magazines, after a mass shooting on July 4, 2022, in Highland Park, Ill. A divided three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit, refused to block the law while challenges moved forward.

“As we know from long experience with other fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech, the right peaceably to assemble, the right to vote and the right to free exercise of religion, even the most important personal freedoms have their limits,” Judge Diane P. Wood, appointed by President Bill Clinton, wrote for the majority. Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, joined the majority opinion.

In dissent, Judge Michael B. Brennan, appointed by President Donald J. Trump, wrote that the majority had failed to follow a 2022 Supreme Court precedent, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which required courts to look to historical practices to assess the constitutionality of gun control measures.

“Because the banned firearms and magazines warrant constitutional protection, and the government parties have failed to meet their burden to show that their bans are part of the history and tradition of firearms regulation,” he wrote, “preliminary injunctions are justified against enforcement of the challenged laws.”

The Supreme Court ruled last month that the government can disarm people subject to restraining orders for domestic violence.

The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to hear follow-on cases on a far more consequential Second Amendment question: May people convicted of felonies be permanently barred from having firearms?

The defendant in the domestic violence case, Zackey Rahimi, a drug dealer in Texas, was a notably unattractive figure. According to court records, Mr. Rahimi threatened women with firearms and was involved in five shootings in a two-month stretch.

One of the defendants in the new set of cases, Bryan Range, is more sympathetic. Mr. Range pleaded guilty to a nonviolent crime decades ago while he was struggling to feed his three young children. He admitted in state court in Pennsylvania in 1995 that he had made a false statement to get food stamps.

That was a misdemeanor, but it was subject to a maximum sentence of five years. It was enough to count as the equivalent of a felony under a federal gun law that makes it a crime for anyone convicted of “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” to possess a firearm.

Mr. Range served three years of probation, and the only blemishes on his criminal record since then were for minor traffic and parking violations and for fishing without a license.

He sued to challenge the gun law in 2020, saying that it violated the Second Amendment. Prosecutors have conceded that his conviction for making a false statement involved neither drugs nor violence.

The Third Circuit ruled for Mr. Range.

“Because the government has not shown that our Republic has a longstanding history and tradition of depriving people like Range of their firearms,” Judge Thomas M. Hardiman wrote for the majority, the challenged law “cannot constitutionally strip him of his Second Amendment rights.”

In dissent, Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote that the ruling was a recipe for chaos in which “our citizenry will be left reeling from the consequences.”

She urged the justices to intervene. “The sooner the Supreme Court takes up this issue,” she wrote, “the safer our Republic will be.”

In its petition seeking review, the Biden administration told the justices that the Third Circuit had “opened the courthouse doors to an untold number of future challenges by other felons based on their own particular offenses, histories and personal circumstances.”

Mr. Range’s lawyers, in an unusual move, agreed that the court should hear the case, Garland v. Range, No. 23-374, even though their client had won below.

The Supreme Court, apparently not eager to return to the subject of the Second Amendment so soon, instead returned the case to the Third Circuit “for further consideration in light of United States v. Rahimi.”

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