POLITICS
12/07/2015 10:17 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2015

Supreme Court Rejects Major 2nd Amendment Case, And Justice Thomas Has A Fit

He and Justice Antonin Scalia assailed the court's decision not to hear a case that effectively upheld an assault weapons ban.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticized a decision by the Supreme Court on Monday not to hear a case from Illinois t
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticized a decision by the Supreme Court on Monday not to hear a case from Illinois that focused on assault weapons.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a controversial case out of Illinois that effectively upheld a ban on assault weapons as consistent with the Second Amendment.

The court's order didn't explain the reasoning behind the decision, but two justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, split with their colleagues and laid out why they would've agreed to hear the case.

Pointing to the Supreme Court's landmark rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago -- which extended the "personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home" -- Thomas said the Illinois decision treated "the Second Amendment as a second-class right."

"There is no basis for a different result when our Second Amendment precedents are at stake," Thomas wrote.

The move by the justices comes amid renewed calls for gun control in the wake of last week's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. During a rare Oval Office address on Sunday, President Barack Obama again urged Congress to enact gun control measures

The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case could be read as an indication of the justices' unwillingness to further define the contours of the Second Amendment in light of the current political climate.

The Supreme Court has rejected more than 60 cases seeking to clarify the scope of the Second Amendment since the 2008 Heller
Mark Wilson via Getty Images
The Supreme Court has rejected more than 60 cases seeking to clarify the scope of the Second Amendment since the 2008 Heller ruling.

In the 2008 Heller decision, the court warned that the amendment didn't stand for a "right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose," and noted the "longstanding" and "historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons." 

The case the court declined to hear on Monday, Friedman v. City of Highland Park, stemmed from a local ordinance in the city of Highland Park, Illinois, that banned "assault weapons" -- defined as any semi-automatic firearm that accepts large-capacity magazines and possesses a number of specialized features.

Gun rights advocates attacked the ordinance as unconstitutional. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the ban -- and essentially invited the Supreme Court to clarify whether the scope of the Second Amendment should be extended to include the prohibited weapons.

"If it has no other effect, Highland Park’s ordinance may increase the public's sense of safety. Mass shootings are rare, but they are highly salient, and people tend to overestimate the likelihood of salient events," the appeals court said. "If a ban on semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines reduces the perceived risk from a mass shooting, and makes the public feel safer as a result, that's a substantial benefit."

Thomas took issue with what he described as these "potential policy benefits" and said the right to keep and bear arms shouldn't be subject to the "freestanding interest-balancing" inherent to the political process.

"If a broad ban on firearms can be upheld based on conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all), then the Second Amendment guarantees nothing," Thomas wrote.

He went on: "We cautioned courts against leaving the rest of the field to the legislative process: Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or ... even future judges think that scope too broad." 

Despite Thomas' misgivings, the Supreme Court's inaction in the Friedman case on Monday is part of a larger pattern of refusing similar gun cases.

One advocacy group has estimated that the justices have turned down more than 60 cases upholding a variety of gun safety laws -- lending credence to the notion that the high court has no immediate desire to revisit the Heller ruling. 

Still, gun rights proponents may be pinning their hopes on another high-profile case.

In October, an appeals court in New York largely upheld comprehensive gun control legislation passed in the wake of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Responding to the ruling, Tom King, the president of a New York affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said the adverse ruling made him "happy."

"Could I be happier? Absolutely," he told The Buffalo News. "But we're on our way to the Supreme Court."

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