Jacob D. Charles, Executive Director for the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University, spoke in favor of the assault weapons ban at the debate on Tuesday.

Courtesy of Stacey Blanksky

Jacob D. Charles, Executive Director for the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University, spoke in favor of the assault weapons ban at the debate on Tuesday.

October 1, 2019

Cornellians, Firearms Expert Debate Constitutionality of Assault Weapons Ban

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On the two-year anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in Las Vegas, the Cornell Political Union hosted Jacob D. Charles, Executive Director for the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University, for its first debate of the semester. The topic of discussion: whether an assault weapons ban would violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Charles’s Duke biography states he joined the Center for Firearms Law as executive director after practicing in the appellate group at McGuireWoods LLP, where he briefed cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth and Ninth Circuits as well as in numerous state intermediate and high courts.

“I am here to convince you that an assault weapons ban would not violate the Second Amendment,” Charles said. “This is a fraught and contentious debate, and the people and their representatives — not lawyers in robes — should be the ones to decide whether an assault weapon ban best serves the public interest.”

Charles gave three reasons as to why an assault weapon ban would not violate the Second Amendment: history does not support the right to own an assault weapon, current constitutional doctrine does not impede an assault weapons ban and there are no good normative reasons to suppose that there is a constitutional right to own assault weapons.

He began by conceding that there does exist a definitional problem surrounding assault weapons, primarily in legally distinguishing them from ordinary handguns.

“I do not want to dismiss these definitional concerns out of hand. It has indeed been difficult for lawmakers to define just what qualifies as an assault weapon,” Charles said. “Yet the fact that seven states and the District of Columbia currently have assault weapon bans, and that Congress saw fit in 1994 to enact an assault weapon ban, shows that the definitional problem has not been prohibitive.”

He further contended that while semi-automatic rifles that qualify as assault weapons are rarely used in crime, they nonetheless have contributed to the carnage brought about by mass shootings in our nation.

“The overwhelming majority of firearm deaths, whether by suicide, homicide or accident, are caused by handguns,” Charles said. “But assault weapons have been used in a number of high profile mass shootings and, in particular, some of the deadliest. Their use in mass shootings is disproportionate to their percentage as a subset of all firearms.”