Case Status: Dismissed in wake of favorable decision by Supreme Court of Massachusetts in another case

Martel v. Healey

  • Federal District Courts

In 1986, Massachusetts passed a law that bans private citizens from owning a stun gun or Taser for self-defense. Codified in Section 131J of the General Laws of Massachusetts, the law stated that “No person shall possess a portable device or weapon from which an electrical current, impulse, wave or beam may be directed, which current, impulse, wave or beam is designed to incapacitate temporarily, injure or kill.” Anyone who violated the law was subject to a fine up to $1,000 or imprisonment up to two and one half years, or both.

Criminalizing Self-Defense

CIR represented three clients who had moral and practical objections to using lethal violence in self-defense. Each of them would face criminal charges if they attempted to use non-lethal electric weapons.

Stun guns are legal in forty-five states and have been sold commercially since the 1970s. Nevertheless, states like Massachusetts have tried to ban electric weapons under the reasoning that they are “dangerous and unusual” weapons that are “not typically possessed by law abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”

An overwhelming majority of states, however, recognized that law-abiding citizens may face situations where they require non-lethal means of self-defense. By prohibiting stun guns, the Massachusetts law made self-defense more dangerous, not less.

Legal History

The Massachusetts stun gun ban was challenged in 2011 by a Massachusetts woman named Jamie Caetano. Caetano obtained a stun gun to defend herself from an abusive ex-boyfriend, but nevertheless found herself convicted and criminalized under Massachusetts law. She appealed her conviction, arguing that her criminalization violated her Second Amendment right to self-defense. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, however, held that convictions under the statute are constitutional because stun guns, even though they are non-lethal, are “thoroughly modern” inventions that were not in common use at the time the Second Amendment was enacted in 1789.

Caetano appealed her conviction once again to the United States Supreme Court, where the Center for Individual Rights, along with Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment and UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh filed an amicus brief on her behalf. Our brief argued that many people seek non-lethal means of self-defense, but that laws like those in Massachusetts leave them either criminalized or without a means of self-defense they can lawfully use in keeping with their convictions.

The Supreme Court vacated the Massachusetts’s Court ruling and instructed them that stun guns are not per se outside the scope of the Second Amendment. In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas and Justice Alito cited our brief, saying:

“Countless people may have reservations about using deadly force, whether for moral, religious, or emotional reasons—or simply out of fear of killing the wrong person. See Brief for Arming Women Against Rape & Endangerment as Amicus Curiae 4–5. “Self-defense,” however, “is a basic right.” I am not prepared to say that a State may force an individual to choose between exercising that right and following her conscience, at least where both can be accommodated by a weapon already in widespread use across the Nation.”

The opinion stopped short of striking down the Massachusetts’s law outright.  But it did call the law’s Constitutional footing into question.

In light of this development, the Center for Individual Rights filed this suit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Our challenge alleges the Massachusetts’s law violates the Second Amendment by criminalizing those – like our clients – who for moral or practical reasons desire a stun gun to use in self-defense.

In the News

Federal suit aims to zap stun gun ban

The Bay State’s stun gun law is under attack in federal court, as three residents fight for their constitutional right to carry the electric weapons that are legal in 45 states but still banned here.