A federal appeals court spent more than an hour Wednesday vigorously questioning lawyers about the constitutionality of Maryland's assault weapons ban and whether a judge who upheld it applied the correct legal standard.
Gun rights supporters claim the ban violates the Second Amendment because it applies to firearms that many Maryland residents keep in their homes. The state argues that lawmakers had authority to prohibit the weapons because they are rarely used for self-defense and are disproportionately used in mass shootings and killings of police officers.
The appeals court typically takes several weeks to issue a ruling.
Maryland lawmakers passed the sweeping Firearms Safety Act after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. Gun rights advocates went along with most of the law but challenged the provision banning 45 assault weapons and the 10-round limit on gun magazines.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake upheld the ban, but a divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that she did not apply the proper legal standard. The panel sent the case back to Blake and ordered her to apply "strict scrutiny,'' a more rigorous test of a law's constitutionality. The state appealed to the full appeals court.
John Parker Sweeney, an attorney for the gun rights advocates who challenged the ban, argued that lawmakers went too far.
"Government cannot ban protected firearms from the homes of law-abiding citizens,'' he said.
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Judges asked Sweeney how far that protection extends.
"If machine guns were not banned and were in the same use as AR-15s, could they be banned?'' Judge Dennis Shedd asked.
They could not, Sweeney replied.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said Sweeney seemed to be suggesting that any gun that can be kept at home is out of government's reach, no matter how dangerous the weapon.
"Your position is so broad that it comes to a point of disabling legislatures from their core function of protecting citizens,'' Wilkinson said.
Sweeney said handguns are "more dangerous'' than the assault weapons because they are used in the vast majority of slayings, yet the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban in the nation's capital. The assault weapons banned by Maryland "are almost never used in crimes,'' Sweeney said.
But Maryland Assistant Attorney General Matthew J. Fader said the Supreme Court struck down the D.C. law because handguns "are the quintessential weapon for self-protection'' and therefore protected despite their use in crimes. Firearms that rank below handguns in the spectrum of self-defense weapons can be more tightly regulated, he said.
Wilkinson suggested lawmakers are better equipped than judges to decide which types of firearms are so dangerous that they should be banned, and that gun rights supporters have plenty of clout to be heard on the issue.
"Nobody is powerless here,'' Wilkinson said.