Supreme Court Upholds Large-Capacity Magazine Ban

by Jessica Folker

In one of the most closely watched cases of the past year, the Colorado Supreme Court on June 29 unanimously upheld a state law limiting firearm magazine capacity, finding the statute does not violate the right to keep and bear arms under the Colorado Constitution.

At the center of the litigation is House Bill 1224, passed in 2013 in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting, which prohibits the sale, transfer or possession of large-capacity magazines — generally defined as a magazine that can accept more than 15 rounds of ammunition.

Shortly after the law was passed, local and national gun rights groups sued then-Governor John Hickenlooper, challenging the constitutionality of the bill under article II, section 13 of the Colorado Constitution, which gives the right to bear arms in self-defense. The plaintiffs, including Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and Virginia-based National Association for Gun Rights, didn’t challenge the statute under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The district court initially dismissed the case, and the plaintiffs appealed. Applying the “reasonable exercise test” established in Robertson v. City and County of Denver, a division of the Court of Appeals in 2018 concluded the law is constitutional as a “reasonable exercise of the state’s power for the protection of public health and safety.”

The Colorado Supreme Court found HB 1224 satisfied the test from Robertson, a 1994 case in which the court upheld a Denver assault weapons ban. According to the test, the government may regulate firearms under the state constitution as long as the legislation is a “reasonable exercise” of police power and doesn’t work to nullify the right to bear arms in defense of home, property or person.

The plaintiffs had argued HB 1224’s definition of LCMs, which includes devices “designed to be readily converted to accept more than fifteen rounds of ammunition,” unreasonably prohibits the vast majority of detachable magazines since many with removable base pads can be converted to accept more than 15 rounds. But the high court rejected this reading, distinguishing between magazines “designed to” hold more than 15 rounds and those “capable” of it. The court noted the LCM ban “leaves available ‘ample weapons’ for self-defense” and a grandfather clause allows possession and use of existing LCMs.

“[B]ecause Plaintiffs’ overly broad reading of the statutory definition is contrary to its plain language, we reject their contention that HB 1224’s definition of LCMs encompasses all magazines with removable base pads,” said the opinion written by Justice Monica Márquez. “Because Plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge rests on this misreading of the statutory language, it fails.”

In response to the decision, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement: “As the Court states in its opinion, there is overwhelming evidence that the General Assembly placed reasonable limitations on large-capacity magazines to 15 rounds when it passed the law seven years ago.

“The large-capacity magazine law will decrease the deadly impacts of mass shootings by reducing the number of people who will be shot during a mass shooting incident, and it will save lives. It also honors Coloradans’ right to bear arms for personal defense,” Weiser said. “Today’s ruling is a win for public safety and for the rule of law.”