Federal Court Upholds D.C. Gun Control, Says 'Judiciary Should Defer to the Legislature'


In response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down D.C.'s handgun ban, the District enacted a new Firearms Registration Act that same year. Among other stipulations, the new law banned so-called assault weapons, banned the possession of high-capacity gun magazines, mandated that all firearms (handguns and long guns) be registered, required that all such registrations be renewed every three years, and forbid individuals from registering more than one pistol per month.

Dick Heller, the victorious lead plaintiff at the Supreme Court, found this new gun control regime equally objectionable and brought suit on Second Amendment grounds. In 2011, he suffered a partial defeat when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the "assault weapon" and magazine bans while sending the rest of the case back down to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for further proceedings.

The district court has now issued its opinion. "The people of this city, acting through their elected representatives, have sought to combat gun violence and promote public safety," the ruling declares. "The Court finds that they have done so in a constitutionally permissible manner." D.C.'s Firearms Registration Act was upheld in its entirety.

In his opinion, District Judge James E. Boasberg largely justified that outcome on the grounds of judicial deference. Here's how the judge framed the central dispute in the case:

According to the District, it need only provide "'some meaningful evidence' demonstrating that the challenged registration requirements 'can reasonably be expected to  promote' an important government interest."…

Plaintiffs claim, by contrast, that the District must establish that the challenged regulations will "actually achieve the governmental interest to a significant degree."

Notice the difference between these two standards of review. Dick Heller wants the government to show that its laws will "actually achieve" the goal of reducing gun violence. D.C. wants the courts to give its regulations the benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of the doubt is precisely what D.C. got in this case. "When the evidence regarding a law's probable effect is in conflict," Judge Boasberg held, "the judiciary should defer to the legislature."

Heller is expected to appeal.