AG Nessel Defends Age, Background Check Requirements for Semiautomatic Assault Rifles 

Contact: Ryan Jarvi 517-599-2746
Agency: Attorney General

March 8. 2021

LANSING – Attorney General Dana Nessel recently joined a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in supporting a Washington state initiative regulating the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles. 

The coalition filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of Washington in Mitchell v. Atkins. The attorneys general argue that states have the right to enact reasonable firearm regulations that protect public safety and reduce the prevalence of gun violence. The coalition argues that this includes passing regulations to ensure that only individuals who are likely to use firearms responsibly are able to access them. 

“States must have the ability to protect their residents from gun violence and they should be able to establish regulations that serve that purpose,” Nessel said. “Congress has adopted measures for handguns that are similar to what the state of Washington requires for semiautomatic rifles, and the challenged regulations simply provide additional safeguards to the public over and above our federal standards. A single life lost to gun violence is one too many, and states have an obligation to ensure they are serving in the public’s best interests.” 

In 2018, the people of Washington passed Initiative Measure No. 1639, which imposed new rules on sales of semiautomatic assault rifles, requiring purchasers to be of a certain age and that local law enforcement agencies conduct enhanced background checks on prospective buyers. The measure also prohibits 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, and they appealed to the Ninth Circuit. 

In the amicus brief, 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.  

The coalition also argues that states can also 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 already has 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.  

Joining Attorney General Nessel in filing the brief are the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. 

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