Stun Gun Case Bolts Forward

Judge Douglas Woodlock of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts recently asked CIR to file a Motion for Summary Judgment in our case against Massachusetts’s stun-gun ban. CIR jumped at the opportunity and filed the Motion and a detailed Memorandum on May 17th, asking the court to declare the ban unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.

Our Memorandum makes it clear that the ban is in blatant violation of the Second Amendment. We argue that electric and other non-lethal weapons are “arms” under the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has never said that the Constitution only protects traditional firearms. In fact, legal history suggests exactly the opposite. The Second Amendment codifies a preexisting individual right to self-defense and as such it necessarily should extend to all devices that a person could use in self-defense. Additionally, Electric weapons are not “dangerous” or “unusual” as Massachusetts repeatedly claims in its defense of the ban. Our Memorandum provides data showing that electric weapons are far less lethal than traditional firearms and points to the example of forty-six other states that permit law-abiding citizens to own electric weapons for self-defense.

That Judge Woodlock asked for motions on summary judgment suggests the court wants to resolve Martel quickly. The state filed its response on June 7th, and CIR responded with a final reply on June 28th.

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 states 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 violates the law is subject to a fine up to $1,000 or imprisonment up to two and one half years, or both.

Criminalizing Self-Defense

CIR is representing three clients who have moral and practical objections to using lethal violence in self-defense. Each of them face criminal charges if they attempt 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, recognize that law-abiding citizens may face situations where they require non-lethal means of self-defense. By prohibiting stun-guns, the Massachusetts law make 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 laws Constitutional footing into question. The law still stands and individuals are still prosecuted for the possession of non-lethal electric weapons.

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.

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