The firearms industry and individual Massachusetts gun shops filed a lawsuit in US District Court Thursday against Attorney General Maura Healey, calling her crackdown on the sale of “copycat” assault weapons unconstitutional.
The suit argues that Healey’s July move against the weapons is “unconstitutionally vague, invalid, and unenforceable.”
But more than just Second Amendment gun rights are at issue, the gun advocates argue. Because gunmakers and dealers could face criminal penalties for violating the statute, “retailers were deprived of their due process protections under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,” Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general defended the enforcement notice, saying it has been successful in ending the sale of copycat assault weapons that have been illegal since 1998.
“It is working,” press secretary Jillian Fennimore said in a statement. “For far too long the gun industry has taken it upon itself to interpret the state’s assault weapons ban to allow these unlawful sales, so it’s no surprise that the gun lobby has challenged our enforcement. We look forward to defending in court our efforts to ensure that residents get the full protection of the law.”
The legal fight stems from the attorney general’s surprise summer directive to gun manufacturers and dealers that redefined some guns as prohibited assault weapons. Massachusetts law mirrors the federal assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004, barring specific military-style weapons and their duplicates and any semiautomatic weapons with at least two identifying features — such as a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a grenade launcher, or an ammunition magazine that attaches to a pistol.
Healey’s order redefined copycats as those with operating systems essentially similar to those of banned weapons or components that are interchangeable with banned guns. Assault weapons prohibited in Massachusetts could no longer be altered and sold legally in Massachusetts, she said.
“The gun industry doesn’t get to decide what’s compliant,” Healey said in July. “We do.”
Her move was quickly dubbed a “political stunt” by a local gun rights advocate, and her announcement set off a rush of gun sales in Massachusetts, with gun shops warning that it was buyers’ last chance to get semiautomatic weapons.
Behind the scenes, the attorney general was also fighting gunmakers on another front. Healey is invoking her powers under the state’s consumer protection law to demand documents from Remington and Glock in a probe of possible gun safety problems, the Globe reported early this month. Both Remington and Glock sued the attorney general in Suffolk Superior Court, arguing that she is abusing her authority by casting such a broad net for documents.
In the latest suit, the gunmakers argue that the federal law was never a broad ban on semiautomatic firearms but a prohibition of specific “assault weapons” and their exact duplicates or those with identical features. The law did not contain and was never interpreted to include a “similarity” test or “interchangeability” test to define what constitutes an assault weapon, the suit says.
When Massachusetts legislators enacted the assault weapons ban in 1998, they considered banning copycat guns by defining copies as those with nearly identical bolt and receiver designs. But the Legislature rejected that amendment, instead adhering to the definitions in the federal law. For over two decades, gun sellers in Massachusetts have interpreted that to mean that the only guns prohibited in Massachusetts are those that specifically appear on the list of banned assault weapons or that meet the features test.
The attorney general’s regulations reinterpreted the “assault weapon” definition without any notice or public hearing, and out of conformity with the law’s legislative history and intent, the suit states.
The enforcement notice “radically redefines the meaning of the statutory phrase ‘copies and duplicates of assault weapons’ in a manner specifically rejected by the Massachusetts Legislature before it amended the state licensing law in 1998,” the suit says.
The confusion was compounded when the attorney general’s office issued a followup notice in August delineating “Guns That Are Not Assault Weapons,” and then revised specific entries on that list several times, the suit says.
The suit was filed by four gun shops in Massachusetts: Pullman Arms Inc. of Worcester; Guns and Gear LLC of Agawam; Paper City Firearms of Holyoke; and Grrr! Gear Inc. of Orange.
They were joined by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group representing the firearms industry, based in Newtown, Conn., the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that killed 20 children and six adults.
The gun sellers are being represented by Michael J. Sullivan, a former US attorney and former acting director of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Sullivan, who works for the Ashcroft Law Firm, founded by former US attorney general John Ashcroft, ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary in the 2013 special election to replace US Senator John F. Kerry.
Also representing the gun sellers is the the Boston-based law firm of Kenney and Sams, P.C.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.