July 20, 2022

Hirono Highlights Urgent Need to Restrict Access to Military-Style Assault Weapons Amid Nation’s Gun Violence Epidemic at Judiciary Committee Hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, emphasized the need to restrict widespread civilian access to military-style assault weapons amid the nation’s gun violence epidemic at a full Judiciary Committee hearing. During the hearing, Senator Hirono condemned the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court for making it easier for individuals to access military-style assault weapons and asked policy experts about the dangers of these weapons of war. Senator Hirono has long advocated for stronger gun safety laws, and has redoubled her advocacy following the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park, and elsewhere.

Specifically, Senator Hirono asked Dr. Kyleanne Hunter, a senior political scientist for the RAND Corporation, questions regarding the need to collect better information and transparent data on incidents of gun violence in order to develop comprehensive, evidence-based gun safety legislation.

“As a public health issue, shouldn’t we be able to have a lot more information about incidents of gun violence?” asked Senator Hirono during the hearing. “Gun death is the highest cause of death for young people in our country, you would think that we would want to better understand the causalities and what we can do.”

Senator Hirono also expressed concern that state-level gun safety laws, including Hawaii’s, would be challenged, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. In an exchange with Duke University Law Professor Joseph Blocher, Senator Hirono expressed doubt as to whether the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court would support national or state bans on assault weapons or large capacity magazines, and she reiterated the need to limit civilians’ ability to purchase military-style assault weapons.

“The Supreme Court is not asking the question of whether or not, or how often these kinds of assault weapons—however way we describe them—are used in self-defense,” said Senator Hirono. “They’re asking whether it’s dangerous and unusual, and when you have 20 million of these kinds of items in our environment, that’s not particularly unusual. That’s why this is a Supreme Court that is moving us toward enabling more and more people to own all kinds of guns, and we are already awash in guns in our country.”

A full transcript of Senator Hirono’s question line is below and a link to download video is available here.

Senator Hirono: Dr. Hunter, would you consider gun violence in our country a national health issue?

Dr. Hunter: Absolutely, it is a public national health issue.

Senator Hirono: A public health issue, and therefore, as a public health issue shouldn’t we be able to have a lot more information about incidents of gun violence, and perhaps why—black women, for example—would go out and buy guns in this environment?

Dr. Hunter: Absolutely, evidence-based public health approaches to solving problems is something that is essential. We have seen it with motor vehicle accidents, we have seen it in approaching the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and meaningful solutions to include legislation, as well as public investiture in private companies to make better decisions, as well as informing consumers to make better decisions, comes from transparent data. And right now, as researchers, we don’t have that data to give you the best information possible to make the laws—a comprehensive set of laws—that are going to keep us safe.

Senator Hirono: I agree with you, and as our colleague testified that gun death is the highest cause of death for young people in our country, you would think that we would want to better understand the causalities and what we can do. Professor Blocher, after Bruen, I would say that there’s going to be a lot of questions about various state laws that may fit within the Bruen kind of a situation, including, by the way, Hawaii. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the fact that Hawaii has some of strictest gun laws in the country, and probably the lowest gun violence rate in our country. And already after Bruen, the Supreme Court has already sent a case challenging Hawaii’s laws back to the Ninth Circuit for a new ruling. So after Bruen, would you expect a lot more challenges to state law, such as in Hawaii’s case? And what does that do for state’s efforts to lower gun violence in their states?

Professor Blocher: Thank you for the question, Senator, not only would I expect it, I think we have already seen it—cases that have been sent back down for further consideration in light of historical record; issues which we thought to be resolved by prior Second Amendment cases, including the constitutionality of prohibitions like Highland Park’s municipal assault weapons ban, I think absolutely will be relitigated. My hope and expectation is that judges will recognize what then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote in a dissenting opinion when she was on the Seventh Circuit, which is that history is consistent with common sense. And the framing generation understood that dangerous persons could be disarmed. Likewise, they understood that dangerous and unusual weapons could be prohibited, and so I hope that the juris prudence continues to reflect that fact.

Senator Hirono: Well, after Bruen, do you think that this Supreme Court will sustain a national ban on assault weapons and do you think this Court would support a state’s ban on assault weapons? And what about bans on large capacity magazines, do you think that the Supreme Court would sustain such bans, at either the national or state levels?

Professor Blocher: One of the difficult things about answering the question is the degree to which Bruen has introduced uncertainty, but here’s how I would think it through—in lead up to Bruen, anyway, such laws had faired extremely well in Second Amendment litigation, so there is a juris prudence that already exists. Courts upheld these laws under a variety of different rationales, some concluding that those weapons are dangerous and unusual, and therefore, fall outside of the scope of the Second Amendment; some courts concluding that the government had a sufficient interest, and that these laws are sufficiently tailored to that interest—some of those certainly will be relitigated.

Here’s, I think, three factors at least we can consider, in predicting the Supreme Court’s response: One is that the Court has again affirmed that dangerous and unusual weapons can be prohibited, and in Heller, an opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court equated dangerous and unusual weapons with M-16s and the like. And for all the reasons you’ve heard today, AR-15s and M-16s are different but they are similar, and the “and the like” may include AR-15s as well. There’s an argument that these weapons are in common use, the National Shooting Sports Foundation often points to the fact that 20 million have been sold in the past few decades, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of that number, but I would say that 20 million assault weapons in circulation in the past few decades does not mean 20 million assault weapons owners. That ownership is probably concentrated in a much smaller proportion of gun owners, who themselves are a minority of the American population, so we’re maybe talking about 4-5 million Americans out of 300+ million, also 20 million weapons is only 5 percent of the civilian weapons stock—I’m not sure whether that constitutes “common” or not.

What I really want to know, to be able to evaluate the question—and what I hope the Supreme Court would ask in light of Bruen, which directs us to consider the burdens on self-defense—is how often are these weapons used in self-defense in comparison to their use in gun massacres and mass shootings? We heard today an earlier example where one was, but when Maryland’s prohibition on assault weapons was challenged, neither the challengers nor law enforcement could point to a single example of a Maryland-er using an assault weapon for self-defense. And if that’s the case, and if we take the industry and Justice Thomas—for that matter—at their word that these are “modern sporting rifles,” then I think they’re two times removed from the historical interest in self-defense.

Senator Hirono: Well, the thing is, the Supreme Court is not asking the question of whether or not, or how often these kinds of assault weapons—however way we describe them—are used in self-defense. See, that is not the question they’re asking. They’re asking whether it’s dangerous and unusual, and when you have 20 million of these kinds of items in our environment, that’s not particularly unusual. That’s why this is a Supreme Court that is moving us toward enabling more and more people to own all kinds of guns, and we are already awash in guns in our country.

Last month, Senator Hirono voted to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to take meaningful steps to make communities safer from gun violence, which was signed into law by President Biden. In a Judiciary Committee hearing at the beginning of June, Senator Hirono highlighted the need for gun safety laws and questioned experts about how to combat the growing domestic terrorism threat in the U.S.

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