By David G. Savage
The Supreme Court made clear again Tuesday that the government has broad power to restrict and regulate firearms, dismissing a 2nd Amendment challenge to California's 10-day waiting period for new gun purchases.
While the court has ruled that the 2nd Amendment protects the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns, the justices have repeatedly refused to go further by blocking strict gun regulations, including state bans on the sale of semi-automatic weapons or limits on who can carry a weapon in public.
Dissenting alone, Justice Clarence Thomas said "the 2nd Amendment is a disfavored right in this court."
In 2008 and 2010, the high court struck down ordinances in Washington, D.C., and Chicago that prohibited the private possession of handguns as violations of 2nd Amendment. Americans have a right to have guns at home for self-defense, the court said in 5-4 decisions.
But since then, the justices have turned down gun rights advocates who have sued to challenge gun regulations based on the 2nd Amendment.
"There are simply not four justices who are eager to jump back into this fray," said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on gun rights. It takes the votes of at least four justices to grant review of a case. "The California case highlights that the gun debate will play out in the legislatures and in Congress."
Many gun rights advocates have insisted the 2nd Amendment includes the right to buy rapid-fire, military-style rifles, which are among the most popular weapons sold in the nation. But in December 2015, the high court refused to hear a challenge to an ordinance in Highland Park, Ill. that banned the sale and possession of semi-automatic rifles that have been used in several mass shootings. California and seven other states have similar laws.
Last June, the court also turned away a constitutional challenge to ordinances in San Diego and Los Angeles which strictly limit concealed carry permits. While gun owners may obtain a permit from a county sheriff if they can show "good cause," many California counties set a very high bar for who qualifies under this standard. In upholding the restrictions, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said "the 2nd Amendment does not preserve or protect a right of a member of the general public to carry concealed firearms in public." Only Thomas and new Justice Neil M. Gorsuch dissented then.
On Tuesday, the court let stand a ruling of the 9th Circuit Court that called California's 10-day waiting period for gun purchases a "reasonable safety precaution" and one that does not violate the constitutional right to own a gun.
California, eight other states and the District of Columbia impose waiting periods for the purchase of a firearm. The others are Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
California's 10-day period is longer than all but Hawaii's. And California's waiting period applies to new gun purchases even if the owner already possesses another legal weapon.
Jeff Silvester, a gun owner, and the CalGuns Foundation sued, contending the 10-day wait is too long and unnecessary for gun owners who are purchasing a second weapon. They said the state's claimed need for a "cooling off period" makes no sense if the buyer already has a gun.
But the 9th Circuit upheld the regulation. The judges said they agreed with the state's argument that "waiting 10 days may deter subsequent purchasers from buying new weapons that would be better suited for a heinous use."
The justices considered the appeal at several private conferences, but announced Tuesday they would not hear the case of Silvester vs. Becerra.
Thomas filed a 14-page dissent and lamented the court's "general failure to afford the 2nd Amendment the respect due an enumerated constitutional right." He cited examples of where the court had intervened to hear cases about waiting periods or delays for abortion, protests or police searches.
"The court would take these cases because abortion, speech and the 4th Amendment are three of its favored rights," he wrote. "The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this court's constitutional orphan."
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