In Murphy v. Guerrero, the United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands addressed a host of Second Amendment challenges. Chief Judge Ramona Manglona, an Obama appointee who earlier this year struck down the last remaining handgun ban in a United States jurisdiction, struck down the following laws: a registration requirement, an “assault weapons” ban, a caliber restriction, a public carry ban, and a $1,000 excise tax. Judge Manglona upheld the following laws: a licensing requirement, a storage requirement, and a “large-capacity magazine” ban.
The challenge was both brought and litigated by Paul Murphy, a veteran Army Ranger who served honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Murphy moved to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (“CNMI”), customs officials confiscated his firearms and ammunition. Murphy later acquired a license to own firearms, but had six additional rifles confiscated because he refused to register them, or in some cases, re-register them. Murphy challenged the constitutionality of the laws that resulted in the confiscation of his firearms, and many other laws that he alleged violated his right to keep and bear arms.
Open carry. The CNMI prohibited citizens from carrying readily accessible firearms in public. The Ninth Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over this district court, recently held that the concealed carrying of firearms is unprotected by the Second Amendment. But since both Supreme Court precedent and the plain text of the Second Amendment make clear that the Second Amendment right extends beyond the home, Judge Manglona, consistent with the only federal circuit court to address the issue, determined that a law cannot completely forbid public carry. Thus, since concealed carry is not constitutionally protected within the Ninth Circuit, open carry must be, so the prohibition on public carrying was unconstitutional to the extent that it prohibited open carry.
Assault weapons. The CNMI banned so-called “assault weapons,” which it defined as “a semiautomatic rifle in a caliber greater than .223 that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and any one of the following: a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a thumbhole stock; a folding or telescoping stock; a grenade launcher; a flash suppressor; or a forward pistol grip.” The provision banning grenade launchers was not challenged, but all the others were struck down. The government argued that the ban promotes public safety, but the court recognized that the prohibited rifle attachments actually make rifles safer by increasing accuracy and control.
Caliber restriction. The court struck down a caliber restriction, which prohibited any rifle “other than a .22 caliber rimfire, .22 caliber center-fire and .223 caliber center-fire.” The government argued that the higher caliber rifles could be banned because they are more deadly. The court properly rejected this argument: given that the core of the Second Amendment is the right of self-defense, the government cannot prohibit arms for being more effective for self-defense. The court explained, “the government’s interest in protecting the life of the aggressor cannot render self-defense less effective at the expense of the victim.”
Registration. The court struck down the requirement that firearms be registered because it did nothing to prevent dangerous persons from obtaining firearms, and instead only informed the government about who owns what firearms—an insufficient government interest.
Excise Tax. The CNMI imposed an excise tax of $1,000 for each handgun imported to the CNMI. The court determined that the right to keep and bear arms protects the right to acquire arms. “The reason is simple: without the arms, the right would be useless.” Recognizing that the CNMI was abusing its power to tax to destroy the right to keep and bear arms, the court struck the tax down.
Licensing. The court upheld a scheme requiring a license (valid for two years) to possess firearms, finding it sufficiently tailored to the goal of preventing dangerous persons from obtaining firearms.
Storage. The CNMI requires that firearms within the home be either “stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock” or “carried on the person of an individual over the age of 21.” Because the Ninth Circuit already upheld a similar law in 2014, the court upheld it using the same rationale. These laws should have been struck down. The Supreme Court has made clear that the government cannot render arms inoperable for “the purpose of immediate self-defense.” Further, it is unclear how the government’s interest in reducing accidents is advanced by requiring citizens to carry firearms on their person in order to have a firearm readily accessible for self-defense. This causes citizens to carry firearms more frequently, and in impractical situations when they would feel safer setting the firearm nearby, possibly resulting in more accidents.
Large-Capacity Magazines. The court was also bound by Ninth Circuit precedent in upholding the CNMI’s ban on so-called “large-capacity magazines.” As the Ninth Circuit did, the court relied on the dubious assertion that the ban burdens offensive shooters more so than defensive shooters, and elided the fact that as Second Amendment arms, the magazines cannot be prohibited.
Overall, Murphy represents a major victory for gun rights. Even if it is appealed, the well-reasoned decision would be difficult to overrule.