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High court’s decision on SAFE Act challenge is win for gun control advocates

WASHINGTON – Gun control advocates won the latest in a string of Supreme Court victories Monday when the justices once again refused to hear legal challenges that claimed the assault weapons bans included in New York’s SAFE Act and a similar Connecticut law are unconstitutional.

Without comment, the justices declined to review a lower-court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the New York ban, which bars the sale of a series of semi-automatic weapons, based on their physical characteristics, as well as the high-capacity magazines used in them. The high court separately, and also without comment, upheld a similar Connecticut ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

Coming only eight days after a shooter claiming allegiance to ISIS used an assault rifle to kill 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla, the decision marked the biggest legal win yet for the SAFE Act, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed into law in 2013 despite strenuous objections from gun-rights activists.

“This decision is a victory for common sense gun control laws in New York and across the nation,” Cuomo said. “We came together, both Democrats and Republicans, to enact strict gun control measures because we fundamentally believed that we could both protect our communities while safeguarding the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners in our state.

“We continue to hold this view, which was validated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s actions.”

Meanwhile, Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, said he was actually glad the Supreme Court had not taken up Kampfer v. Cuomo, the case in which Fulton County gun rights activist Douglas Kampfer challenged the SAFE Act.

Turning down the Kampfer case doesn’t set a court precedent, leaving the door open for further legal challenges to the SAFE Act in the future. King’s group had filed such a high court appeal of its case against the SAFE Act but withdrew it after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

Without the conservative Scalia on the court, “the best we could possibly hope for on the eight-member court was a 4-4 tie,” King said, noting a tie would have formally upheld an appeals court ruling that said the state’s assault weapons ban is constitutional.

Still, Kampfer, in a phone interview with Gannett News Service, said he was disappointed the high court turned down his case.

“The Supreme Court has made a big error,” he said.

“They’re basing their issues on sympathy because of Orlando, and they never should have done that.”

Yet it comes as no surprise that the high court refused to hear the gun control cases from New York and Connecticut.

Eight years ago, the justices ruled in Heller v. U.S. that the Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees the individual right to own firearms. But since then, the court has repeatedly refused to consider cases about whether states and localities have gone too far in regulating guns.

Last December, for example, the court refused to hear a legal challenge to an assault weapons ban in Highland Park, Ill. – a decision that prompted an unusual and angry dissent from Justice Clarence Thomas, who said the court should have reviewed that case because the law appeared to infringe on Second Amendment rights.

“Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles. The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting,” Thomas wrote in his dissent, which Scalia joined.

“Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.”

Nevertheless, several federal appeals courts nationwide have upheld assault weapons bans, usually following the reasoning the Second Circuit Court of Appeals set forth in its opinion in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Cuomo and the Connecticut gun case last October.

That decision upheld the right of the states to ban both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“Because the prohibitions are substantially related to the important governmental interests of public safety and crime reduction, they pass constitutional muster,” the New York-based appeals court said.

Both Cuomo and State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said the nation’s wave of mass shootings proves that governments nationwide must act.

“The tragedies in Orlando, Newtown, Aurora and communities across the country have galvanized Americans desperate to get our national gun violence epidemic under control,” Schneiderman said. “It is critical that Congress finally heed the call of the American public and ban the sale of assault weapons. In the absence of congressional action, now is the time for states across the country ... to finally enact sensible gun laws that keep assault weapons off the streets, and make all Americans safer from the threat of gun violence.”