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Conn.’s Assault Weapon Ban

In the wake of the Newtown massacre the debate over assault weapons continues. Recently, New York strengthened its gun control laws and existing assault weapons ban. Each time the topic is raised the opponents of gun control trot out the Second Amendment, citing it as an absolute proscription on the power of government to place any limitation on weapons possession.

Anywhere you are, when Sandy Hook is mentioned, the conversation eventually morphs into a debate on gun control. The NRA, self-appointed guardian of the Second Amendment, argues that any assault weapons ban eviscerates rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The text of the amendment cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, on the government’s right to seek regulation of firearms, states. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Sandy Hook has prompted a national effort to limit access to assault weapons. Ironically, Connecticut already possesses an assault weapons ban, Section 53-202a defines assault weapons to include “Bushmaster Auto Rifle and Auto Pistol.” Section 53-202c provides, “. . . any person who, within this state, possesses any assault weapon, [with limited exceptions] shall be guilty of a class D felony and shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of which one year may not be suspended or reduced”

In 2005, our state Supreme Court, in Benjamin v. Bailey, rejected a constitutional challenge to the ban, grounded in Article 1, Sec. 15 of our state constitution. Section 15 provides, “every citizen has a right to bears arms in defense of himself and the state.” Opponents of the ban argued that our constitution contained an absolute, unfettered right in the citizenry to bear any type of arms, including the enumerated assault weapons in Section 202a.

The Court rejected that argument, citing facts from the trial: “. . . the number of assault weapons being seized is rising steadily. Assault weapons ‘have appeared more frequently as a risk factor to police officers on the street, and to innocent victims in densely-populated areas. ‘” It ruled that the ban was “a reasonable exercise of the state’s police power” Like the U.S. Supreme Court, our Court determined that the right to bear arms is not merely limited to the existence of a militia or defense of the state. The right encompasses self-defense as well.

In either instance, it is not absolute (“. . . the bearing of arms is not valued in and of itself, but only as a means to particular ends.”). Even the right of self defense is limited by what the Court called the general rule of reason, “right to use deadly force only where person reasonably believes it necessary to protect self from deadly force or great bodily harm.” Thus the Court ultimately concluded: “The constitution does not guarantee the right to possess any weapon of the individual’s choosing for use in self-defense. We conclude, therefore, that as long as our citizens have available to them some types of weapons that are adequate reasonably to vindicate the right to bear arms in self-defense, the state may proscribe the possession of other weapons without infringing on article first, § 15.”

In simple terms our law provides that you may own a weapon (provided you are not a convicted felon) with “reasonably sufficient firepower to be effective for self-defense.” A federal ban on assault weapons will not infringe on this right. Homeowners and shopkeepers do not need the rapid fire power of a Bushmaster for self-protection. Time for the NRA and its supporters to recognize, as our Supreme Court did 8 years ago that, “. . . the constitutional text embodies a rule of reason, rather than an absolute.”

Rich Meehan