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Supreme Court turns away challenge to Maryland assault weapons ban

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a challenge to Maryland's ban on so-called assault weapons, allowing legal proceedings to play out in the dispute.

By not stepping into the legal battle at this time, Maryland's law remains in place for now. The ban's challengers had asked the Supreme Court to take up their case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled on whether the restriction is allowed under the Second Amendment. The full 4th Circuit heard arguments in late March, but has yet to issue a decision. The dispute is likely to end up back before the Supreme Court once the appeals court rules.

Maryland's ban on certain semiautomatic rifles was enacted in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Under the law, it is a crime to possess, sell, transfer, or purchase an "assault long gun," which encompasses 45 specific weapons or their analogues. A variety of semiautomatic handguns and rifles are still allowed, according to the Maryland State Police.

In addition to Maryland, nine other states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws restricting semiautomatic weapons.

A group of Maryland residents who want to buy semiautomatic rifles covered by the ban, a licensed gun dealer in the state and several pro-Second Amendment groups challenged the law in 2020, arguing that it violates the Second Amendment. 

The 4th Circuit had already upheld the law once before, and the Supreme Court declined to review that decision. As a result of the earlier appellate ruling, a federal district court dismissed the case. But it landed before the high court once again, which sent the dispute back to lower courts for further proceedings in light of a 2022 ruling expanding the scope of the Second Amendment. 

In that decision, the Supreme Court laid out a framework under which gun laws must be consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearms regulation. That ruling has led lower courts to invalidate several long-standing gun restrictions found not to meet the so-called history-and-tradition test. 

The Supreme Court heard a case in November arising out of one of those instances, in which a federal appeals court invalidated a 30-year-old law prohibiting people under domestic violence restraining orders from having firearms. It has yet to issue a decision in that case, but the ruling is expected to provide more guidance on how courts should apply the Supreme Court's new standard.

The pro-gun rights challengers asked the Supreme Court to intervene and leap-frog the appellate court, which it rarely does. They argued the issue is of "imperative importance."

"A fundamental right is at stake, the proper outcome is clear, and the behavior of the lower courts indicates that this court's intervention likely is necessary for that fundamental right to be vindicated," the groups argued.

They urged the Supreme Court to take up the case before the 4th Circuit ruled "to make clear once and for all that the most popular rifles in the history of the nation are protected by the Second Amendment."

But Maryland officials urged the justices to turn down the request to review its firearms law, arguing it is too early for them to step into the dispute. They also said that under the Supreme Court's new standard for evaluating the constitutionality of gun laws, its ban on certain semiautomatic rifles passes muster.

The ban on assault-style weapons survives constitutional scrutiny "because it is consistent with our nation's historical tradition of firearms regulation, which encompasses regulation of novel arms posing heightened dangers to public safety," Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown wrote. 

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