By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and LARRY NEUMEISTER
SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh says he recognizes that gun, drug and gang violence “has plagued all of us.” Still, he believes the Constitution limits how far government can go to restrict gun use to prevent crime.
As a federal appeals-court judge, Kavanaugh made it clear in a dissent in 2011 that he thinks Americans can keep most guns, even the AR-15 rifles used in some of the deadliest mass shootings.
Kavanaugh’s nomination by President Donald Trump has delighted Second Amendment advocates. Gun law supporters worry that his ascendancy to America’s highest court would make it harder to curb the proliferation of guns. Kavanaugh has the support of the National Rifle Association, which posted a photograph of Kavanaugh and Trump across the top of its website.
The Supreme Court has basically stayed away from big guns cases since its rulings in 2008 and 2010 declared a right to have a gun, at least in the home for the purpose of self-defense.
Gun-rights advocates believe Kavanaugh interprets the Second Amendment right to bear arms more broadly than does Anthony Kennedy, the justice he would replace. As a first step, some legal experts expect Kavanaugh would be more likely to vote for the court to hear a case that could expand the right to own a gun or curtail a gun-control laws.
Kavanaugh would be a “big improvement” over Kennedy, said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. Kennedy sided with the majority in rulings in 2008 and 2010 overturning bans on handgun possession in the District of Columbia and Chicago, respectively, but some gun-rights proponents believe he was a moderating influence.
“Kennedy tended to be all over the map” on the Second Amendment, Pratt said.
Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was gravely wounded in 2011 in a shooting at a constituent gathering, said in a written statement that Kavanaugh’s “dangerous views on the Second Amendment are far outside the mainstream of even conservative thought.”
She predicted that Kavanaugh would back the gun lobby’s agenda, “putting corporate interests before public safety.”
In his dissent in 2011 in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Kavanaugh argued that the district’s ban on semi-automatic rifles and its gun registration requirement were unconstitutional.
That case is known as “Heller II” because it followed the Supreme Court’s decision in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller striking down the city’s ban on handguns in the home.
Kavanaugh said the Supreme Court held that handguns are constitutionally protected “because they have not traditionally been banned and are in common use by law-abiding citizens.”
“Gun bans and gun regulations that are not longstanding or sufficiently rooted in text, history, and tradition are not consistent with the Second Amendment individual right,” he wrote in a point rejected by the majority.
Critics contend Kavanaugh’s analysis is flawed because AR-15s were not around during the early days of the republic.
In his dissent, Kavanaugh wrote that he had lived and worked in Washington for most of his life and was “acutely aware of the gun, drug, and gang violence that has plagued all of us.”
He said few government responsibilities are more important than fighting violent crime. “That said, the Supreme Court has long made clear that the Constitution disables the government from employing certain means to prevent, deter, or detect violent crime,” he wrote.
He said it was unconstitutional to ban the most popular semi-automatic rifle, the AR-15, since it accounted for 5.5 percent of firearms by 2007 and over 14 percent of rifles produced in the U.S. for the domestic market.
He said semi-automatic rifles had been commercially for sale since at least 1903, “are quite common in the United States” and the Supreme Court said in a 1994 ruling that they “traditionally have been widely accepted as lawful possessions.”
Semi-automatic rifles were used in several mass shootings in recent years. One, for instance, was used to kill 17 people at a Florida high school.
Kavanaugh rejected the majority’s reasoning that semi-automatic handguns were sufficient for self-defense, saying: “That’s a bit like saying books can be banned because people can always read newspapers.”
He belittled the description of the guns as “assault weapons,” saying that handguns could be called the “quintessential ‘assault weapons’ because they are used much more than other guns in violent crimes.”
He was equally dismissive of Washington’s gun-registration protocol, saying it had not been required in the past and “remains highly unusual today.”
Still, Kavanaugh supported the ban on full automatics or machine guns, reasoning that they “were developed for the battlefield and were never in widespread civilian use.”
In 2016, Kavanaugh dissented when two of his colleagues lifted an order blocking the city from enforcing a limit on issuing licenses to carry concealed firearms.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the dissent shows Kavanaugh believes the district’s “good reason” requirement for concealed-carry permit applicants is unconstitutional. His views on that subject drew more scrutiny after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 days ago in a Hawaii case finding that people have the right to openly carry guns in public for self-defense.
Phil Mendelson, a Democrat and chairman of the D.C. Council, said Kavanaugh’s dissent made clear that “his views on gun control are on the extreme side.” Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, a Democrat and professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, said she’s “worried about the shift to the right, for sure.”
Some legal experts believe Kavanaugh’s confirmation would make it more likely the court would hear another groundbreaking Second Amendment case. Only four of nine justices need to vote in favor of reviewing a case.