La. Supreme Court upholds two statutes in gun law challenge

The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected a challenge Tuesday to two state firearm statutes, deciding voters expected “sensible” gun regulations when they approved a constitutional amendment in 2012 that made the right to bear arms fundamental.

The high court reversed the findings of an East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court judge in an opinion experts said would send a clear signal to lower courts weighing similar challenges to the state’s gun laws.

“The voters of Louisiana did not ratify this constitutional amendment in a vacuum,” the justices said in an 18-page ruling, handed down on a day the court was closed due to wintry weather.

The new requirement that gun laws be subjected to “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of judicial review, “was not meant to invalidate every restriction on firearms, whether in existence at the time the amendment was ratified or yet to be enacted,” the court added.

While the ruling leaves unanswered questions in the debate over the constitutionality of other gun laws, it is “certainly suggestive that the sort of analysis the Supreme Court went through will not be fatal to the overwhelming majority of firearms regulations,” said Raymond T. Diamond, an LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar.

“Each and every one of our firearms regulations conceivably could be subject to a separate review,” Diamond said in a telephone interview. “Until the point that the Supreme Court is willing to speak in overarching terms, we are vulnerable to having each one of those firearms restrictions subject to challenge.”

The Supreme Court’s decision reversed a June 2013 ruling by Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson that struck down a law — as it pertains to juveniles — that forbids the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit. The high court also reinstated several exceptions to the state ban on juvenile handgun possession that Johnson had severed from the statute.

The case stemmed from the arrest of a 16-year-old boy, identified in court records as J.M., who was caught out after curfew in Baton Rouge and found to be in possession of a handgun when patted down by police.

Louisiana voters adopted a constitutional amendment in 2012 declaring the right to bear arms fundamental, saying it “shall not be infringed” and mandating that “any restriction of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.” The law replaced language that stated the right to bear arms “shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person.”

The amendment, which was supported by the National Rifle Association and Gov. Bobby Jindal, gave the state the strongest gun rights laws in the country. But it also set off a series of legal challenges by defense lawyers who claimed the amendment invalidated a long list of Louisiana firearms statutes. The new strict scrutiny standard means any limits on gun possession, including current laws, must pass a rigorous evaluation.

State District Court judges last year ruled some of the statutes that had been on the books unconstitutional, including the state’s ban on felons possessing firearms. That left the state Supreme Court to determine which gun laws withstand the new test.

“I definitely don’t think that (Tuesday’s) opinion means that all other gun controls are necessarily constitutional,” said David B. Kopel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver.

Defense attorney Jack Harrison had asked Judge Johnson to strike down the state’s ban on juvenile handgun possession and its concealed weapons law, likening the right to bear arms to freedom of speech and due process. The state Attorney General’s Office opposed the challenge, arguing the state has a compelling public safety interest in regulating gun possession.

“It is virtually uncontested that public safety is better achieved with provisions of law that impose permissible regulations on firearms,” Kristi Garcia Spinosa, an attorney with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The Supreme Court rejected Harrison’s argument and found Johnson erred in striking down portions of the statutes. It held that the 2012 amendment does not prohibit the Legislature from enacting laws regarding the carrying of concealed weapons.

“The clear and unambiguous language of the second sentence of the amended provision ensures that any restriction on the right to keep and bear arms, including those laws regarding the carrying of concealed weapons, must pass the requirements of strict scrutiny,” the court wrote. “There is no limitation on the phrase ‘any restriction.’”

Harrison’s challenge had also been opposed by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit, which noted in a friend-of-the-court brief that handguns “have comprised 74.6 percent of the weapons recovered from persons under 17 in murder cases.”

“The court was extremely strong in its support of the constitutionality of Louisiana’s gun laws, and respected, as it should, the reasoned judgment of the Louisiana Legislature,” said Jonathan E. Lowy, director of the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project. “If the proponents of this constitutional amendment had hoped that it would lead to the evisceration of all gun laws in Louisiana, this opinion makes clear that they have failed and they will fail in that.”