BOSTON — A gun rights group, along with individual gun owners and retailers, is challenging the state’s 1998 assault weapon ban in federal court, arguing the law unconstitutionally infringes on the right to bear arms and improperly bans an entire class of weapons.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, Jan. 23, by a group of plaintiffs including the Gun Owners Action League, names as defendants Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett, the Massachusetts State Police and State Police Superintendent Col. Richard McKeon.
Healey said Tuesday she would “vigorously defend” the law in court and that her office has been successful defending against Second Amendment challenges in the past.
“This has never been about grabbing guns from people,” Healey said on WGBH Radio. “My actions have never been about taking away guns from people. I respect the Second Amendment, but we have a law on the books, and it’s an important law. It says that civilians can’t walk around with or be in possession of military-style assault weapons, weapons that were made for military use to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. That’s appropriate.
“The Legislature’s able to do that, and I believe that they acted wisely.”
The complaint argues that between the assault weapon ban and Healey’s crackdown last summer on copies or duplicates of forbidden guns, “Massachusetts effectively bans the acquisition of the most popular rifles in the nation,” along with standard-capacity magazines that are “sold with nearly all semiautomatic firearms across the nation.”
GOAL has vigorously opposed Healey’s July 20, 2016, announcement that her office’s enforcement of the assault weapons ban would also include copies or duplicates of banned guns.
“It’s been a long struggle since July,” GOAL executive director Jim Wallace told State House News Service. “Our laws were bad enough here in Massachusetts and tough enough to understand … and then suddenly, when we think we had it all figured out, on July 20, we were told we didn’t.”
Healey has said that assault weapons were the “weapons of choice for mass shooters” and that manufacturers had evaded the state ban by making minor tweaks to banned guns that do not “address the lethality of the weapons.”
A Healey spokeswoman said that sales of illegal assault weapons have ended in Massachusetts since the enforcement notice was issued.
“This new lawsuit, the second challenge by the gun lobby, seeks to overturn this 20-year old law,” spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore said in a statement. “We will vigorously defend the law and continue our enforcement efforts to protect the people of our state.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation and four Massachusetts gun sellers filed a separate suit in September challenging Healey’s enforcement notice.
The state ban is modeled after an expired federal law that originally took effect in 1994.
Under state law, the definition of “assault weapon” includes a list of several specific guns as well as their “copies or duplicates.” The suit filed Monday argues the phrase “copies or duplicates” is not defined in state law or legal precedent and the definition of “assault weapon” is “a non-technical, entirely fabricated, and political term of uncertain definition and scope.”
In addition to GOAL, the plaintiffs are gun retailers On Target Training of East Bridgewater and Overwatch Outpost of Charlemont, which say they are experiencing “significant loss of income” because of how the ban is enforced; gun owners David Worman, Anthony Linden and Jason Sawyer, who say guns they legally purchased “may be prohibited” under Healey’s enforcement notice; and Nicholas Feld and Paul Chamberlain, who say they wish to purchase banned firearms and magazines.
The suit cites the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a D.C. handgun possession ban, to argue against what it describes as a prohibition of “an entire class of popular firearms commonly kept for lawful purposes.”
Wallace said GOAL challenged the 1998 ban “a long time ago” on different grounds and he was not involved in that case. He said arguments around Second Amendment civil rights, used in cases like Heller, are “fairly new” and called Massachusetts “way behind” on gun rights.
“My hope is once we make clear that our civil rights need to be protected, then the state government will actually start doing its job in addressing the core issues of mental health, terrorism and crime,” he said. “Once they realize they can’t just use our civil rights as a scapegoat, they’ll have to do the job at hand.”
Healey said she plans to continue her work “protecting public safety and addressing issues of gun violence.”
“Enforcing an assault weapons ban is just one piece of this,” she said. “There’s a lot more that we are doing and that we need to do to reduce the number of needless gun deaths in this country.”