Attorney General James Defends Age and Background Check Requirements for Semiautomatic Assault Rifle Sales

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James, as part of a multistate coalition of 19 attorneys general from around the nation, today continued the fight to ensure that states have the right to enact reasonable firearm regulations that protect public safety and reduce the prevalence of gun violence. In an amicus brief filed in support of a Washington state initiative regulating the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles, in the case Mitchell v. Atkins, the coalition argues that states can pass regulations to ensure that only individuals who are likely to use firearms responsibly in their states are able to access them.

“Americans have seen too many deaths as a result of gun violence, whether they live in New York, Washington, or any other state,” said Attorney General James. “While some seek to remove every safety check we have on protecting our states’ residents from gun violence, states have the clear authority to pass the necessary laws to protect residents, as well as authority to ensure compliance with those laws. The last thing we need to do is to make dangerous weapons more accessible to young people, which is why we are taking this action to protect against further gun violence.”

In 2018, the people of Washington passed Initiative Measure No. 1639, which imposed new rules on sales of semiautomatic assault rifles, including an age requirement on semiautomatic assault rifle sales, a requirement that local law enforcement agencies conduct enhanced background checks on prospective purchasers, and a prohibition on the in-person sales of semiautomatic assault rifles to nonresidents. In 2019, a group of firearms dealers and prospective purchasers who did not meet the age requirement filed a lawsuit, alleging that Washington’s measure infringed on their Second Amendment rights and violated the dormant Commerce Clause. The district court ruled against the plaintiffs, after which they appealed to the circuit court.

In today's amicus brief — filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit — the coalition argues that states have the responsibility and power to protect their residents by promoting safety, preventing crime, and minimizing gun violence. Additionally, states can enact specific regulations that are best tailored to their residents’ needs. These regulations include restrictions that prohibit the sale of firearms based on the purchaser’s age, which are found in all 50 states. For example, New York prohibits the sale of handguns to those under the age of 21. Restrictions of this kind have repeatedly been upheld by courts throughout the country as a way to deter crime and promote public safety.

The coalition also argues, today, that states can permissibly promote public safety by restricting in-person sales of firearms to state residents, as Washington has. Restricting the in-person sales of semiautomatic assault rifles to state residents allows states to conduct more robust background checks on those who purchase weapons, and better ensure that only individuals who are likely to use firearms responsibly can use them. Congress has already enacted an identical measure with respect to handguns, limiting the in-person sales of all handguns to the residents of a dealer’s home state. The attorneys general point out that Washington’s initiative merely extends that rule to the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles — arguably a more dangerous weapon.

Joining Attorneys General James in filing today’s amicus brief are the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.