PROVIDENCE — The chief judge of the US District Court cleared the way Wednesday for a new law that bans large-capacity gun magazines to take effect on Dec. 18.
In his order issued Wednesday, Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. wrote that a Glocester gun shop and four Rhode Island gun owners who sought a temporary restraining order did not prove that the ban on large-capacity gun magazines is unconstitutional.
As he concluded in his denial of the restraining order, McConnell wrote about the devastation caused by mass shooters and that victims are not chosen randomly. They were attending a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a church in Sutherland Springs, an elementary school in Newtown, and a high school in Parkland. “They were not chosen because of anything they did, but because of what they represented to a particular person with a gun and a lot of ammunition.”
While the lawsuit asking the court to void and repeal the law is still pending, the state is entitled to enforce the law and protect public safety, McConnell wrote.
“It is perhaps inevitable that Rhode Island will one day be the scene of a mass shooting,” McConnell wrote. “The LCM ban is a small but measured attempt to mitigate the potential loss of life by regulating an instrument associated with mass slaughter.”
He found the ban “reasonable” and “measured,” and said the plaintiffs failed to persuade that the law was likely unconstitutional.
Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said they were grateful for McConnell’s decision.
This ban was a signature part of the gun legislation that the General Assembly passed in the 2022 session. Legislators also approved laws prohibiting the open carrying of long guns and raised the age from 18 to 21 for people buying guns and ammunition.
“The legislation placing restrictions on high capacity magazines was carefully developed and thoroughly reviewed, and it was enacted after lengthy public testimony in both the Senate and the House Judiciary Committees,” Ruggerio and Shekarchi said in a statement Wednesday. “We firmly believed that the restrictions are necessary, reasonable and in the best interests of public safety, and that they would be upheld in a court of law, just as similar provisions in other states have been upheld.”
Retired Chief Sidney Wordell, the executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said that people can turn their gun magazines over to police departments, which will hold them for safe-keeping until the court makes a final decision on the law. If the law is ultimately upheld, the owner can then decide whether to transfer the magazines to a gun shop to be sold out of state, donate them to the police, or have the magazines destroyed.
Wordell said that “very few” people have turned in their gun magazines over the last six months.
Those who’d advocated for the law were thrilled.
“We are pleased with the Court’s decision and are confident it is the correct ruling,” said Brian Hodge, spokesman for R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha.
“We’re elated about this decision,” said Sydney Montstream-Quas, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. “The General Assembly passed the bill and the governor signed it into law all knowing this is critical for public safety. And we know from the data that stronger gun laws lead to less gun violence, so this is critical for the safety of Rhode Islanders.”
Those who own large-capacity magazines would have to recognize that the law is taking effect, she said.
“We recognized that many gun-owning people want to obey the law, and here is an opportunity for them to continue obeying the law,” Montstream-Quas said. “They claim they are law-abiding citizens, and here is an important law, and it needs to be abided by.”
Lobbyist and lawyer Frank Saccoccio, who represents the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Burrillville Town Council — a town with the symbolic designation as a “Second Amendment Sanctuary Town” — had talked about joining the lawsuit. The chairman, Don Fox, began bringing his gun magazines to meetings last summer, swearing he’d never give them up. The council backed off joining the lawsuit on the advice of legal counsel.
“An Obama-appointed judge who believes in legislating from the bench, rather than upholding the US Constitution, made a bad ruling. No surprise,” Fox said in a text message Wednesday afternoon.
“I would recommend that RI residents not hand in their magazines. I believe the ban will eventually make its way to the US Supreme Court and be overturned for what it is, unconstitutional,” Fox added. “I can only hope that some will carry the case that far. I have more confidence in SCOTUS than in Judge McConnell when it comes to defending constitutional rights of Rhode Islanders.”
He did not answer a question about what he planned to do with his gun magazines.
The new law makes it a felony to possess any semiautomatic firearm magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. A conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $5,000. There are limited exceptions for firearms dealers, law enforcement and military.
Rhode Islanders were given six months from June 21, the day that Governor Daniel McKee signed the law, to surrender their larger-capacity magazines to police, transfer them to people in states where they are legal, or modify them.
Instead, the gun-rights advocates filed suit almost immediately.
Big Bear Hunting and Fishing store and four Rhode Islanders — Jonathan Hirons of Warwick, chairman of Rhode Island Friends of NRA; Mary Brimer, a town council member in North Kingstown; Jeffrey Goyette of Florida, who has a home in Portsmouth; and James Robert Grundy of North Kingstown — argued that the ban violates their constitutional rights and would force them to dispose of their property without compensation.
Andres Mendes of Big Bear Hunting and Fishing signed an affidavit that stated the new law will leave him with an extensive inventory of firearms and magazines that became illegal to sell to the public. Now, he has to sell, transfer, modify, or otherwise dispose of the magazines and firearms, which will have a “severely negative impact” on his business. He would have to set up an online retail wing of his business to move the firearms and magazines; Connecticut and Massachusetts have similar bans.
The four firearms owners bought the magazines for self-defense and don’t want to give them up. Through the Providence law firm of Kelly, Souza, and Parmenter, they argue that the new law is a slippery slope that goes beyond firearms.
“If left standing unchallenged, it would open the door to government’s ability to acquire private property, and obviate a takings clause issue by legislating under the guise of “public safety” in times of public fear, media outrage, and great political discourse,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asserts that the law violates the Second Amendment, the takings clause under the Fifth Amendment, and the due process clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“Banning magazines over 10 rounds is no more likely to reduce criminal abuse of guns than banning high horsepower engines is likely to reduce criminal abuse of automobiles,” wrote Providence lawyer Michael A. Kelly. “To the contrary, the only thing the ban ensures is that a criminal unlawfully carrying a firearm with a magazine over 10 rounds will have a (potentially devastating) advantage over his law-abiding victim.”
Special Assistant Attorneys General Sarah W. Rice and Keith Hoffman rejected the gun-rights supporters arguments that there are firearms that can’t support magazines that hold fewer than 11 rounds.
“There are very few, if any, firearms available on the market which cannot fire with a magazine that accepts fewer than eleven rounds,” Rice and Hoffman said in court filings. The magazine is an accessory that can be replaced with a smaller magazine, or not, as most semi-automatic firearms are capable of being shot without any attached magazine, they said.
They also said that when Rhode Island enacted the law in June, seven circuits had upheld similar magazine capacity restrictions against challenges that they impeded the individual right to armed self-defense.
McConnell heard the arguments at a hearing on Nov. 3 on the gun-rights group’s motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the new law from taking effect.
The chief justice determined that the harm that the plaintiffs said they would suffer “pales in comparison to the unspeakable devastation caused by mass shooters wildly spraying bullets without end into a crowd of bystanders.
“Rhode Island has yet to suffer the kind of massacre that occurred just across our border at Sandy Hook Elementary,” he added. “But, if and when it does, at least while this lawsuit is pending, the state is entitled to enforcement” of the law.
This story has been updated with responses from advocates for and opponents of the law banning large-capacity magazines.