The Connecticut General Assembly
OFFICE OF LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH
December 21, 1995 95-R-1274
FROM: Sandra Norman-Eady, Senior Attorney
RE: Self-Defense and Assault Weapons Ban
You asked for a summary of Benjamin v. Bailey, 234 Conn. 455 (1995).
The state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the statutes that ban the sale, possession, and transfer of assault weapons (CGS §§ 53a-202a to -202k). In rejecting the plaintiffs' first argument that the statutes infringe on the right to bear arms, the Court held that the right to bear arms does not confer on citizen the right to use any weapon of his choosing.
The Court also held that the statutes do not violate the equal protection clause of the state constitution because that clause applies to people, not weapons.
The Court rejected the plaintiffs' third claim—that the ban on assault is a bill of attainder in violation of Article I, Section 13. According to the Court, the ban does not inflict punishment without first affording a violator the right to a trial, thus, it does not violate Article I, Section 13.
Lastly, the Court reversed that part of the trial court's decision to excise the word “type” and the phrase “Auto-Ordnance Thompson type” from the statutory enumeration of banned weapons. According to the Court, the inclusion of the excised word and phrase did not make the statute so vague that it failed to satisfy the due process requirements of facial vagueness applicable in declaratory judgment actions.
BENJAMIN V. BAILEY
The plaintiffs, a foreign corporation, initiated a declaratory judgment action against the chief state's attorney, the state's attorney for Litchfield, and the public safety commissioner. The plaintiffs argued that the statutory ban on assault weapons violates the constitutional rights to bear arms and equal protection, and the constitutional prohibition against bills of attainder. The trial court held that the statutory ban on assault weapons does not violate the constitution. The court, however, narrowly construed the statute by excising certain words from the list of banned weapons in order to prevent it from being void for vagueness.
The plaintiffs appealed the decision and the defendants cross appealed.
The same constitutional issues were before the Supreme Court. The Court also had to decide whether the trial court erred when it excised certain words from the statute that enumerates the banned weapons.
The plaintiff's first contention was that the statutory ban on assault weapons violates the constitutional right to bear arms and as such should be declared unconstitutional because it fails to satisfy strict scrutiny. By phrasing their argument in this way, the Court found that the plaintiffs glossed over the crucial first step in the constitutional analysis. Before deciding the standard of judicial scrutiny to be applied, the Court stated that there must first be an injury or infringement of a constitutional right (Campbell v. Board of Education, 193 Conn. 93 (1984). Only if the statute infringes on an interest in bearing arms that is protected by the state constitution, the Court stated, would the Court have to decide the level of justification the state would have to proffer to support such an infringement.
The Court found that Article I, Sec. 15 of the state constitution confers on a citizen the right to bear arms only “in defense of himself and the state.” Additionally, in State v. Bailey, 209 Conn. 322, 346 (1988), the Court stated that “it is beyond serious dispute that the legislature has the authority to place reasonable restrictions on a citizen's right to bear arms.”
The Court found that the constitution protects each citizen's right to possess a weapon of reasonably sufficient firepower to be effective for self-defense but that it does not guarantee the right to possess any weapon of an individual's choosing for such use. Thus, the Court held that as long as citizens have available to them some types of weapons that are adequate reasonably to vindicate the right to bear arms in self-defense, the state can prohibit the possession of others.
The Court next determined whether the weapons ban infringes on the constitutional right to bear arms. It concluded that the ban is not an infringement because it continues to permit access to a wide array of weapons. According to the Court, the facts as the trial court found them showed that assault weapons pose an increasing risk to society, including police officers and innocent victims. Thus, the ban serves a legitimate interest of the state acting pursuant to its police power (Plourde v. Liburdi, 207 Conn. 412, 419 (1988)). The Court also noted the fact that the trial court specifically discredited testimony offered to establish that the weapons subject to the ban had legitimate self-defense qualities. Lastly, the Court found that the ban does not cover a significant percentage of firearms that continue to be available for citizens to possess, thus, the ban is sufficiently circumscribed so as not to intrude upon the constitutional interests protected by Article I, Sec. 15.
Having decided that the statutory ban on assault weapons did not infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms, the Court found it unnecessary to consider the plaintiffs' argument regarding the level of judicial scrutiny to be applied if an infringement existed.
The plaintiffs next argued that the ban violates the principles of equal protection. By listing the names of specific weapons instead of generic categories, the plaintiffs argued that the statute works an impermissible discrimination.
Although the Court agreed with the factual statements made by the plaintiffs, it disagreed with their legal conclusion. According to the Court, the equal protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions apply only to people, not things (State v. Hurliman, 143 Conn. 502, 505-508 (1956)).
In dicta, the Court stated that even if the plaintiffs had alleged that the statute treats people who possess listed firearms differently from those who possess unlisted ones, the standard of review that would have been applied to determine the statute's constitutionality would have been rational basis. The reasons, according to the Court, were (1) that the plaintiffs did not allege that the statute burdened a suspect class and (2) the Court had already determined that even if it the right to bear arms was deemed a fundamental right, the Court had already concluded that the ban did not intrude on the exercise of that right. Thus, the application of a strict scrutiny standard would not have been warranted. Applying a rational basis standard, the Court stated that the plaintiffs argument would have failed because the state has a legitimate interest in regulating assault weapons.
The plaintiffs next argument was that with respect to one assault weapons manufacturer, Navegar, Inc., the ban on assault weapons is a bill of attainder in violation of Article I, Sec. 13. Article I, Sec. 13 provides that “no person shall be attainted of treason or felony by the legislature.”
The Court rejected this argument for two reasons. Using the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of “bills of attainder,” the Court held that the ban does not inflict punishment without a judicial trial. A penalty applicable to those who possess proscribed weapons in the future can be imposed only after a person is convicted after a judicial trial. The U.S. Supreme Court defined “bills of attainder” as legislative acts . . . that apply either to named individuals or to easily ascertainable members of a group in such a way as to inflict punishment on them without a judicial trial (U.S. v. Lovett, 328 U.S. 303, 315 (1946)).
Secondly, the Court held that although the statute lists banned weapons by manufacturer names, it prohibits everyone from possessing the weapons, not just the manufacturer.
Lastly, the Court addressed the parties arguments regarding the language of the statutory ban. The plaintiffs argued that the trial court improperly determined that the statute is not vague. The defendants argued that under facial vagueness rules applicable to the plaintiffs' challenge, the trial court erred when it failed to reject all of the plaintiffs' vagueness claims.
By requesting a declaratory judgment that the ban on assault weapons is vague, the plaintiffs necessarily asserted that the statute is facially vague or vague in all its applications, according to the Court. In order to prevail on this claim the plaintiffs would have to show that no standard of conduct is specific at all under the statute. The Court held that each portion of the ban on assault weapons has a core meaning sufficiently clear enough to satisfy the due process requirements of facial vagueness applicable in a declaratory judgment action.