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COALITION OF N.J. SPORTSMEN, v. WHITMAN

March 31, 1999

COALITION OF NEW JERSEY SPORTSMEN, INC., BOB'S LITTLE SPORTSHOP, INC., SPRINGFIELD INC., ARMALITE, INC., ROBERT L. VIDEN, JR., STEPHEN D. MCCLURE, JOHN DOES I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, AND IX, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, GOVERNOR, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PETER VERNIERO, ATTORNEY GENERAL, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, HARRIS Y. COTTON, PROSECUTOR OF GLOUCESTER COUNTY, NEW JERSEY, PATRICIA KUNCHYNSKI, CHIEF OF GLASSBORO, NJ, POLICE DEPARTMENT, CARL A. WILLIAMS, COLONEL, DIVISION OF NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rodriguez, District Judge.

  OPINION

Plaintiffs, the Coalition of New Jersey Sportsmen, Inc., Bob's Little Sportshop, Inc., Springfield, Inc., ArmaLite, Inc., Robert L. Viden, Jr., Stephen D. McClure, and nine other New Jersey residents identified simply as John Does I through IX (collectively "plaintiffs"), bring this action for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the Governor of New Jersey, the state's Attorney General*fn1, Colonel Carl A. Williams of the New Jersey State Police, the Prosecutor of Gloucester County as prosecutor, and the Chief of Police of the Glassboro Police Department in New Jersey ("collectively Defendants")*fn2. At issue is New Jersey's assault weapons law, passed and signed into law in 1991, and now codified at N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1 et seq.

Plaintiffs raise the following federal constitutional challenges to this state law: (1) it is unconstitutionally vague, and thus void (Counts III, V, VIII, X, XI, and XIV); (2) it violates equal protection (Counts I, II, IV, VI, IX, XII, and XIII); (3) it violates their rights to free association (Count I); (4) it infringes on their right to free speech (Count IV); and (5) it constitutes a bill of attainder (Count VII). The complaint also seeks a declaratory judgment that certain firearms are not "assault firearms" within the meaning of the statute, and that plaintiffs who register their weapons and possess "large capacity ammunition magazines" are not required under N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3j to actually participate in competitive shooting matches sanctioned by the Director of Civilian Marksmanship.

This matter is now before the court on motions for summary judgment filed by both plaintiffs and defendants. For the reasons set forth below, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is denied, and defendants' motion is granted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On May 17, 1990, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill restricting the possession, sale, and transport of "assault firearms" and "large capacity ammunition magazines." L. 1990, c. 32. Governor James Florio signed the bill into law on May 30, 1990, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1 et seq. (the "Act"), saying at the time, "[t]hese are weapons of war designed to kill as many people as possible in the least amount of time. They have no place on our streets, where too often our police find themselves outgunned." N.J. Lawmakers Approve Nation's Toughest Ban on Assault Weapons, L.A. TIMES, May 18, 1990, at 4.

Beyond the obvious objective of removing assault weapons from New Jersey streets and from the hands of criminals, the rationale for this law can also be found in then Attorney General Robert Del Tufo's testimony concerning Senate Bill 166. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 12, 1990, the Attorney General explained that the intent of the law did not touch upon any firearms used for legitimate hunting or target shooting purposes. Rather, the law would only prohibit semi-automatic (ie. self-loading) shotguns with excessive magazine capacities, or with other prohibited characteristics such as a pistol grip designed for hand-held firing. According to this testimony, "[a]ny person who possesses a shotgun with a magazine capacity of more than 5 rounds intends to hunt something other than game." (Plaintiffs' Exh. 18, Del Tufo Testimony).*fn3

New Jersey's gun control statute accomplishes its prohibition by defining the term "assault firearm" to include five separate categories of firearms: (1) certain firearms listed by make and model, series or type; (2) "[a]ny firearm manufactured under any designation which is substantially identical to any of the firearms listed above"; (3) a semi-automatic*fn4 shotgun with either a magazine capacity exceeding six rounds, a pistol grip*fn5, or a folding stock; (4) a semi-automatic rifle with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 15 rounds; and (5) "a part or combination of parts designed or intended to convert a firearm into an assault firearm, or any combination of parts from which an assault firearm may be readily assembled if those parts are in the possession or under the control of the same person." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-1w(1-5).

Under the statute, "any person who knowingly has in his possession" such a firearm is guilty of a third degree crime*fn6, unless certain very narrow exceptions apply. N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(f). Possession of large capacity ammunition magazines*fn7 is also prohibited, subject to some of the same exceptions. N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(j). Exceptions to the general prohibition include if a weapon is among the types certified by the Attorney General as a `legitimate' target-shooting firearm and the owner has registered the weapon with the state and proven his or her membership in a valid rifle or pistol club, see N.J.S.A. 2C:58-12, or if the weapon has been rendered permanently inoperable, see N.J.S.A 2C:58-5, 13. There are also exemptions within the law for certain government employees, such as member of the Armed Forces and federal law enforcement officials. N.J.S.A. 2C:39-6. A one-year grace period was provided for individuals who currently owned prohibited weapons to comply with the law or surrender the firearm. N.J.S.A. 2C:58-13. There was no grandfather clause for those individuals who legally possessed assault weapons at the time this law was enacted.

The law's prohibitions extend beyond merely possessing such weapons; the challenged law also provides that "[a]ny person who manufactures, causes to be manufactured, transports, ships, sells or disposes of an assault firearm without being registered or licensed to do so pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:58-1 et seq. is guilty of a crime of the third degree." N.J.S.A. 2C:39-9g.

The gravamen of plaintiffs' complaint can be found in their brief in the following paragraph:

  Plaintiffs cannot determine whether they possess
  "assault firearms" or "large capacity ammunition
  magazines" because those terms are vague. They are
  threatened with prosecution if they possess
  firearms and magazines in New Jersey, and incur
  costs and are deprived of their use when stored
  outside of New Jersey. Plaintiffs who were not
  members of a club could not register assault
  firearms the Attorney General labeled
  "legitimate." Plaintiffs ArmaLite, Springfield,
  and Bob's Little Sportshop have lost profits
  because they cannot market numerous firearms in
  New Jersey.

(Plaintiffs' Br., 7/24/98, at 3).

Based on these and other allegations, plaintiffs filed suit on June 28, 1996, asserting as grounds for the action 28 U.S.C. § 2201, 2202 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1988, and the United States Constitution. Defendants first filed a pre-Answer motion urging this court to abstain from deciding state law questions under the doctrine of Pullman abstention. In the alternative, defendants sought dismissal or summary judgment. Plaintiffs responded by filing a cross-motion to stay defendants' motion for summary judgment.

In an Order entered on June 24, 1997, this court denied defendants' motion for abstention, finding instead that defendants demonstrated only one of three circumstances which might have counseled for Pullman abstention. See Order dated June 24, 1997. The court also denied defendants' motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, and accordingly held that plaintiffs' motion to stay summary judgment was moot. After further discovery ensued, both sides filed these motions for summary judgment. This court has jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 1343.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The entry of summary judgment is appropriate only when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the non-moving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about it might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986).

The moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met its opening burden, the non-moving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The non-moving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 870 F. Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J. 1994). "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

However, in deciding the motion, the court does not "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but [instead] determine[s] whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505. If the non-movant has provided evidence exceeding the "mere scintilla" threshold in demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact, the court cannot weigh the evidence and credit the movant's interpretation of the evidence. This is so even if the movant's evidence far outweighs the non-movant's evidence. Credibility determinations are the province of the factfinder. Big Apple v. BMW of North America, 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 912, 113 S.Ct. 1262, 122 L.Ed.2d 659 (1993).

DISCUSSION

A.  JURISDICTIONAL ISSUES

Defendants first contend that the Eleventh Amendment and abstention doctrines*fn8 requires this court to stay this action to permit state court resolution of disputed interpretations of this assault weapons ban. In particular, defendants allege that there are at least 17 different issues of state law, the resolution of which would obviate or at least impact the federal analyses necessary under this federal constitutional challenge to this New Jersey law.*fn9 According to the defendants, plaintiffs seek from this court `binding' constructions on matters of state law. This, according to the defendants, is prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment as construed by the Supreme Court in Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 104 S.Ct. 900, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984) ("Pennhurst II").

In Pennhurst II, the Supreme Court held that the Eleventh Amendment bars federal injunctive relief against a state official if (1) "`the judgment sought would expend itself on the public treasury or domain, or interfere with the public administration,' or if the effect of the judgment would be to `restrain the Government from acting, or to compel it to act,'" 465 U.S. at 101 n. 11, 104 S.Ct. at 908 n. 11 (quoting Dugan v. Rank, 372 U.S. 609, 620, 83 S.Ct. 999, 1006, 10 L.Ed.2d 15 (1963)), and if (2) the conduct to be restrained is within the scope of authority delegated to the official by state law, see id. 465 U.S. at 102, 104 S.Ct. at 909. The suit in Pennhurst II was barred because it involved a pendent claim against state agencies and officers seeking prospective injunctive relief for a violation of state law:

Id. at 106, 104 S.Ct. at 911.

Defendants seek to characterize plaintiffs' causes of action as arising under state law. This characterization is designed presumably to strengthen the case for abstention based on the presentation of a Pennhurst II-type action. Nonetheless, this clearly is a mischaracterization of this action.

Every count of plaintiffs' complaint alleges violations under the United States Constitution, actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Federal jurisdiction over this claim was based on the existence of a federal question, not, as in Pennhurst II, on principles of pendent jurisdiction. While the resolution of these constitutional issues necessarily requires this court to ascertain what state law means, this is a far cry from a prohibited Pennhurst II-type action which seeks injunctive relief on the basis of state law. The Third Circuit was presented with, and soundly rejected, a similar argument in the case of Everett v. Schramm, where the Court instructed as follows:

  Though it is true that [deciding the case]
  required the district court to ascertain what the
  standard of need was under Delaware law,
  ascertaining state law is a far cry from
  compelling state officials to comply with it. The
  ascertainment of state law is an everyday function
  of the federal court, in cases ranging from those
  falling within our diversity or pendent
  jurisdiction, to those brought under section 1983
  which claim deprivation of a state-created
  property right. Indeed, section 1983 would be
  rendered almost nugatory if federal courts are
  prohibited, by the eleventh amendment, from
  deciding matters of state law in cases brought
  against state officials.

772 F.2d 1114, 1119 (3d. Cir. 1985); see also Piecknick v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255 n. 7 (3d. Cir. 1994) ("Pennhurst II did not address the Eleventh Amendment's bar of suits against state officials in federal court when the claims are based on deprivation of federal constitutional or statutory rights."); Barnes v. Cohen, 749 F.2d 1009, 1018 (3d. Cir. 1984).

Nothing in the Pennhurst II case and its interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment causes this court to rethink its Order not to stay this action pending state court resolution of related issues. Accordingly, this court will proceed to decide whether or not portions of the disputed statute violate the Federal Constitution.*fn10

B.  VAGUENESS

Plaintiffs primary allegation is that several aspects of the assault firearms ban are unconstitutionally vague and thus should be struck down by this court. Specifically, in Count III of the complaint the term "assault firearm" and components of its definition*fn11 are attacked as both facially vague and vague as applied to particular plaintiffs. (Compl. ¶¶ 48-81). Count V seeks a declaration that ten specific weapons, produced by either the plaintiffs Springfield or ArmaLite, are not "assault firearms," or, in the alternative, that the definition of "assault firearms" is vague as applied to such rifles. (Compl. ¶¶ 90-96). Count VIII attacks the definition of "large capacity ammunition magazine," by opining that "as applied to tubular magazines which may be loaded with different amounts of rounds of ammunition depending on cartridge length, this definition is vague." (Compl. ¶ 111). Count X alleges that the act's prohibition on the possession of large capacity ammunition magazines unless "maintained and used in connection with participation in competitive shooting matches . . ." is vague because there are not standards as to how often one must compete, or what actually qualifies as competition, and because the agency which sanctions qualifying shooting matches no longer exists in the same organizational framework as specified in the Act. (Compl. ¶¶ 119-124). Similarly, plaintiffs seek in Count XI a declaration that weapons previously registered pursuant to the shooting competition exception need not be surrendered if no longer used in competition, or, in the alternative, that this aspect of the law is vague. (Compl. ¶¶ 126-127). Finally, in Count XIV, plaintiffs allege that the term `inoperable' is vague as applied to the unique circumstances of two plaintiffs, who claim to legally possess (under an exception) an assault firearm, as well as other assault firearms which they have rendered `inoperable.' These plaintiffs question whether they violate the law because they are in `possession' of weapon components*fn12 (on the legally-owned weapons) which conceivably could be used to render the inoperable weapons operable. (Compl. ¶¶ 135-140).

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, upon which the plaintiffs rely for this vagueness challenge, can render a statute unconstitutional based on notions of fairness. Colten v. Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104, 110, 92 S.Ct. 1953, 1957, 32 L.Ed.2d 584 (1972). Vague laws offend the assumption that "man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct," and thus "we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly." Grayned v. Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 2298-99, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972); see also Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S.Ct. 126, 127, 70 L.Ed. 322 (1926) ("[A] statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law."); Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 910 F.2d 1172, 1177 (3d Cir. 1990). A second justification for vagueness challenges also exists: to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. "A vague law impermissibly delegates ...


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