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Media Alerts - United States v. One Palmetto State Armory PA-15 Machinegun Receiver/Frame, Unknown Caliber Serial Number: LW001804; Wat
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May 23, 2016
  United States v. One Palmetto State Armory PA-15 Machinegun Receiver/Frame, Unknown Caliber Serial Number: LW001804; Wat
Headline: The Second Amendment Does Not Protect the Possession of Machine Guns

Area of Law: Second Amendment

Issue(s) Presented: Is the Gun Control Act's ban on machine gun possession facially unconstitutional under the Second Amendment? And does the ban apply to a trust despite "trusts" not being included in the statutory list of persons to which the ban applies?

Brief Summary: Ryan S. Watson, sole trustee of Watson Family Gun Trust, applied to make and register a machine gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) eventually disapproved Watson's application, and Watson was asked to surrender his machine gun. Watson claimed the ban on machine gun possession was facially unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. Watson alternatively claimed that ban did not apply to the Watson Family Gun Trust because the ban only speaks to "persons" and a trust is not a person under the statute.

The Third Circuit held that the Second Amendment does not protect the possession of machine guns and thus, the ban is not unconstitutional. The Second Amendment, the Court noted, only protects weapons "in common use" - not dangerous or unusual weapons, like machine guns. The Third Circuit also held that although "trust" is not one of the listed entities in the statutory definition of "person," machine guns held in trust are not exempt from the ban. Watson, the trustee, is the individual human being seeking to possess a gun on behalf of the trust and is therefore prohibited from any conduct forbidden to natural persons by the ban.

Extended Summary: Watson, sole trustee of Watson Family Gun Trust, applied to make and register an M-16-style machine gun. ATF mistakenly approved his request. After realizing the mistake, ATF disapproved Watson's application, and Watson was asked to surrender the gun he made. He did so under protest. That same day, Watson filed suit against the U.S. Attorney General and ATF Director, claiming the ban on machine gun possession, the Gun Control Act, was unconstitutional facially and as applied to him (although he did not assert any facts for the ban as applied to him, so the Third Circuit did not consider it). Watson alternatively claimed that the ban does not apply to the Watson Family Gun Trust because the ban only speaks to "persons" and a trust is not a person under the statute's definition.

The Gun Control Act prohibits private manufacture of machine guns by making it unlawful for any person to transfer or possess a machine gun. Narrow exceptions exist for certain government entities and machine guns lawfully possessed before 1986. The Act defines "person" as an individual, corporation, company, association, firm, partnership, society, or joint stock company.

The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court in holding that the ban does not violate the Second Amendment, and thus the Gun Control Act's ban of machine guns is not unconstitutional. The Court looked to the Second Amendment as interpreted in the Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller. There, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment only protects weapons "in common use," such as handguns used for self-defense in the home, and not dangerous or unusual weapons. Machine guns, according to the Third Circuit and other courts, are not commonly used for lawful purposes like sporting use or personal protection and, therefore, are outside the scope of Second Amendment protection. Moreover, Heller suggests machine guns and other arms most useful in military service may be banned without burdening Second Amendment rights.

The Third Circuit also rejected Watson's argument that the ban does not apply to a trust, as it is not a "person" under the statute. Although "trust" is not one of the listed entities in the statutory definition of "person," a trust is not an entity distinct from its trustees. Watson is the individual human being seeking to possess a gun on behalf of the trust; regardless of his status as trustee, he is also a natural person and therefore prohibited from any conduct forbidden to natural persons by the ban. Also, to interpret "persons" as Watson does would allow anyone to avoid liability by placing a machine gun in trust - an exception the Third Circuit noted would swallow the rule.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/152859p.pdf.

Panel: Ambro and Krause, Circuit Judges; Anne E. Thompson, District Judge

Argument Date: April 4, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: May 18, 2016

Docket Number: No. 15-2859

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Elizabeth C. Dolce

Counsel: Alan A. Beck, Esquire, David R. Scott, Esquire, and Stephen D. Stamboulieh, Esquire, Counsel for Appellant; Patrick Nemeroff, Esquire, Michael S. Raab, Esquire, Jacqueline C. Romero, Esquire, and J. Alvin Stout, III, Esquire, Counsel for Appellee; Robert J. Olson, Esquire, and William J. Olson, Esquire, Counsel for Amicus-Appellants; Joran Eth, Esquire, James R. McGuire, Esquire, and Adam M. Regoli, Esquire, Counsel for Amicus-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: District Judge Thompson

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 05/23/2016 02:38 PM     3rd Circuit  

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