Case Summary

In a Major Second Amendment Decision, the Massachusetts High Court Rules the State Ban on Stun Guns Unconstitutional

Case nameRamirez v. Commonwealth, _____Mass.____(April 17, 2018), Docket No. SJC-12340.

SUMMARY : In a major Second Amendment decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that the Commonwealth’s statute banning members of the general public from owning stun guns was unconstitutional. This ruling completely eliminated any part of the statute banning stun guns, meaning that, if the ruling took immediate effect, there would be no restrictions on who could obtain a stun gun. Because of the breadth of the ruling, the SJC stayed the entry of the judgment for sixty (60)days  from the date of the rescript to give the  legislature time to add constitutional restrictions to ownership, if the legislature so chose.    

DECISION/VOTE/JUDGES: 6-0 (Quorum), by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, Frank M. Gaziano, David A. Lowy, Kimberly S. Budd, Elspeth B. Cypher, & Scott L. Kafker.

Opinion written by Chief Justice Gants.

MONEY QUOTE:

“[T]he absolute prohibition in G. L. c. 140, § 131J, against the civilian possession of stun guns is in violation of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and therefore that § 131J in its current form, as amended by St. 2004, c. 170, § 1, is facially invalid; and (b) vacating the District Court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of unlawfully possessing a stun gun in violation of § 131J, and directing the judge to allow the motion and to dismiss that charge. The entry of that judgment shall be stayed for sixty days after the date of the issuance of the rescript in this case.”

RELEVANT FACTS:

  • The defendant was charged with, among other things, civilian possession of a stun gun, a violation of G. L. c. 140 § 131J (the stun gun ban).
  • The stun gun ban prohibits anyone from possessing a stun gun unless they are law enforcement or a supplier of stun guns.
  • In the district court, the defendant moved to dismiss, arguing the stun gun ban violated the Second Amendment. The district court denied his motion without a written opinion or explanation.
  • The defendant petitioned the single justice of the SJC for relief, and the Commonwealth joined his petition.
  • Just three years prior to this case, in Commonwealth v. Caetano, 470 Mass. 774 (2015), the SJC had ruled that the stun gun ban did not violate the Second Amendment .
  • However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Caetano v. Massachusetts, 136 S. Ct. 1027 (2016),  vacated the SJC’s Caetano decision and remanded the case because it stated the SJC’s reasoning in Caetano was flawed. Importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court had not reversed the SJC’s Caetano, but instead ordered the SJC to re-evaluate its logic in upholding the ban.
  • What is more, Caetano’s underlying case was rendered moot when the charge was dropped against the defendant, leaving the stun gun ban’s legality in limbo.

OPINION

  • The SJC first noted that a stun gun was not technically a “firearm” under Massachusetts law, but found that, under the leading U.S. Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion striking down Caetano,  stun guns were “arms” within the ambit of the Second Amendment.
  • Therefore, because stun guns were arms under the Second Amendment, the SJC ruled that possession of stun guns could be regulated, but not absolutely banned.
  • The SJC noted that the stun gun ban was at least partially unconstitutional because it “bars all civilizans from  possessing or carrying stun guns, , even in their home” and was thus “inconsistent with the Second Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional.”
  • The SJC then had to decide whether the stun gun ban could be salvaged in any part, or had to be entirely struck down.
  • To make this decision, the SJC applied the three principles of (1) resiting nullifying more of the law than was necessary, so as to not frustrate the will of the people; (2) refraining from rewriting the law, as that was the province of the legislature and not the judiciary; and (3) discerning legislative intent, and whether the legislature would have preferred what might be left of  the statute to no statute at all.
  • The SJC determined that severability was impossible, and the entire stun gun ban had to be ruled unconstitutional because the stun gun ban is simple and “provides that, apart from law enforcement officers and suppliers, “[n]o person shall possess a [stun gun],” and thus there was no provision that could be severed to save its constitutionality.
  • However, considering that the legislature’s intent was to bar such a dangerous weapon from falling into the hands of dangerous persons and protect the safety of ordinary citizens, and implying that the current firearm regulation in the state would survive Second Amendment scrutiny, the SJC took the unusual step of delaying the entry of judgment of the order for sixty (60) days to give the legislature time to implement a regulatory scheme to effect its purpose within the boundaries of the Second Amendment.

 

ANALYSIS:

  • The SJC clearly was influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s disdainful opinion on Caetano. The approbation received on that case weighed on the SJC’s decision to reverse course here.
  • The sweeping breadth of the opinion implies is that many other non-traditional “arms” may be protected under the Second Amendment. This might also go so far as to include knives, and that limitations on size currently in effect in the state may not survive constitutional scrutiny.
  • The SJC left open what types of restrictions would be valid under Second Amendment scrutiny. The SJC strongly implies that the current Massachusetts restrictions on handguns and rifles pass constitutional muster and would be applicable to stun guns.
  • Also left open was the question whether this ruling would have any retroactive application to those charged or convicted of possession or sale of a stun gun.
  • The SJC’s delay of the entry of judgment was unusual and uncommon but not unprecedented. It had done so in the cases of Moot v. Department of Envtl. Protection, 456 Mass. 309 (2010) ; Goodridge v. Department of Pub. Health, 440 Mass. 309, 344 (2003). Notably, the SJC here allowed the individual defendant’s case here to proceed as if the entry of judgment had taken effect but effectively barred anyone for 60 days from taking advantage of the ruling to purchase a stun gun before the Legislature had time to act.
  • For practitioners seeking to overturn a statute as unconstitutional, special attention should be paid to the three principles cited for severability: (1) resiting nullifying more than is necessary, so as to not frustrate the will of the people; (2) refraining from rewriting the law, as that is the province of the legislature and not the judiciary; and (3) discerning legislative intent, and whether the legislature would have preferred what is left of the statute to no statute at all.

 

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