La. Supreme Court upholds gun restrictions

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana Supreme Court building, New Orleans. Show caption
Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana Supreme Court building, New Orleans.

Justices also find law bears ‘strict scrutiny’

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a state law that forbids felons from possessing firearms, ruling that lawmakers did not intend to invalidate the state’s weapons laws when they proposed a constitutional amendment declaring gun ownership a fundamental right.

Justice Jeff Hughes wrote in a unanimous opinion that the state’s ban on the possession of firearms by convicted felons “is not affected” by the constitutional language approved by voters in 2012.

The justices also found that the law, R.S. 14:95.1, withstood a legal test known as “strict scrutiny,” the highest level of judicial review, which became necessary after voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved constitutional language that gave Louisiana the strongest gun-rights laws in the nation.

“Such laws are effective, time-tested and easily understandable, and do not violate the constitution,” Hughes wrote in the 16-page opinion. “Common sense and the public safety allow no other result.”

The ruling marked the most recent setback for defense attorneys who have challenged one gun law after another, claiming the statutes were rendered unconstitutional when voters decided the right to bear arms was a right that “shall not be infringed.” Defense lawyers have argued the right to own a gun in Louisiana is now enshrined among rights such as due process and freedom of speech.

The constitutional amendment, passed by a 73 percent majority, said any restriction of gun ownership must be subjected to “strict scrutiny,” a legal hurdle that requires the state to prove that a law serves a compelling government interest and is narrowly tailored to that purpose. The amendment, which was supported by the National Rifle Association and Gov. Bobby Jindal, touched off a barrage of legal challenges that have all met defeat at the state Supreme Court level.

In its latest ruling, the high court acknowledged “a measure of ambiguity” had been created by the 2012 amendment, which replaced earlier language that said the right to bear arms “shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person.” But in the most sweeping language it has used to date, the court addressed the Legislature’s intent in drafting the amendment to begin with and concluded that lawmakers “did not intend to invalidate existing weapons laws.”

“We are satisfied that it is reasonable for the Legislature, in the interest of public welfare and safety, to regulate the possession of firearms, for a limited period of time, by citizens who have committed certain specified serious felonies,” Hughes wrote. “Courts of other states having statutes and constitutional provisions comparable to our own have similarly concluded that such regulation is constitutionally permissible as a reasonable and legitimate exercise of police power.”

The opinion referred to remarks by state Sen. Neil Riser, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the legislation and had sought to allay concerns that the amendment would have unintended consequences in the courtroom. “We roughly have close to 40 gun laws right now, and those laws will stay in effect,” the high court quoted Riser as saying in advocating the amendment. “Any (weapons) law on the books right now is on the books (and) they are going to stay there.”

“I think they’re saying here, ‘We’re not going to be turning anything over. All the gun laws are safe, and there’s nothing that’s going to be ruled unconstitutional,’ ” said Jack Harrison, a Baton Rouge defense attorney who argued a similar case before the state Supreme Court last year. “I think this is pretty broad.”

Colin Reingold, a New Orleans public defender who unsuccessfully challenged another law that makes it a felony to possess a firearm with illegal drugs, said the opinion appeared to be “the most encompassing” of the court’s rulings on the impact of the new amendment. The court’s comment on the legislative intent is “not a holding,” Reingold said, “but it’s a strong indication that (the justices) are discouraging future challenges along these lines.”

In an earlier ruling, the high court had punted on the question of whether the state “may dispossess certain convicted felons of their right to bear arms for a number of years, even after they have paid their debt to society and fully discharged their sentences.” In that Orleans Parish case, the court ruled against defendant Glen Draughter, a convicted car burglar, based merely on his probation status.

“There’s no question about it that the existence of illegal weapons on the streets of New Orleans exacerbates the violent crime problem that we’re experiencing,” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Bowman called the Supreme Court’s latest ruling “a good decision that’s good for the citizens.”

“We’ll continue to defend the constitutionality of existing gun laws,” Bowman added, noting the ruling would not bar future challenges to other firearm statutes.

Tuesday’s opinion reversed an earlier ruling by Judge Robert Pitre of Jefferson Parish, who had struck down the state’s ban on felons possessing firearms in favor of two defendants, while upholding a conflicting ruling by Judge William Knight of St. Tammany Parish. The cases had been consolidated for the high court’s consideration.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.