WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court came together Monday on the unlikely issue of guns, ordering Massachusetts’ top court to look again at the state’s ban on stun guns.
The justices, with no apparent dissent, issued an unsigned opinion in favor of Jaime Caetano, who was convicted of violating the state’s anti-stun gun law. Caetano said she kept a stun gun in her purse for self-defense against an abusive former boyfriend.
Massachusetts is among a handful of states that prohibit possession of stun guns. The state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the ban and said the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms does not extend to stun guns.
But the nation’s high court said “the explanation the Massachusetts court offered for upholding the law contradicts this court’s precedent.” The justices were referring to the court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that struck down Washington, D.C.,’s handgun ban and said the Constitution guarantees the right to a gun, at least for self-defense at home.
Monday’s unsigned opinion does not go so far as to strike down the law or say stun guns do fall within the Second Amendment.
Heller was a 5-4 decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, with four liberal justices in dissent.
The court has refused repeated pleas to spell out the extent of gun rights in the United States, even prompting Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas to vent their frustration in December when their colleagues refused to hear an appeal over local assault weapon bans.
Scalia died in February, and there is no way to know at this point whether his death affected the outcome, or at least the court’s approach, in the Massachusetts case.
Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor and an expert on the legal dispute over guns, said the opinion was the first time the court’s liberals had cited the Heller case approvingly.
With gun rights advocates voicing concern that Scalia’s replacement could provide a fifth vote to overturn that 2008 decision, Winkler said that “liberal justices may have wanted to signal that they are not eager to overturn Heller.”
In any event, the court’s actions until now have shown that the Heller case “has not proven to be a major impediment to effective gun control law.”
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Thomas, wrote separately to criticize the state court ruling in blunt terms. Alito called Monday’s ruling “grudging” and noted that the state court would now have another chance to rule against Caetano.
“Caetano’s mere possession of the stun gun that may have saved her life made her a criminal,” Alito wrote.