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Court upholds constitutionality of Conn. gun-control law

The decision to defend the constitutionality of a historic gun-control law in Connecticut marks the most recent victory for reform advocates.
Veetek Witkowski holds a newly assembled AR-15 rifle at the Stag Arms company in New Britain,  Conn, April 10, 2013.
Veetek Witkowski holds a newly assembled AR-15 rifle at the Stag Arms company in New Britain, Conn, April 10, 2013.

A federal court's decision this week to uphold Connecticut's assault weapons ban is an important victory for gun safety advocates, transitioning from a year that ended with almost half of all states strengthening reform laws.

Judges in Hartford on Thursday defended the constitutionality of the law, which they said balances Second Amendment gun rights and the Obama administration's call to reduce violence. Pro-gun advocates sought repeal and sued the state after Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the historic gun bill into law last April, but the court rejected their argument.

"The court concludes that the legislation is constitutional. While the act burdens the plaintiffs' Second Amendment rights, it is substantially related to the important governmental interest of public safety and crime control," U.S. District Judge Alfred Covello, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote in the decision.

Brian Stapleton, who represented all plaintiffs in the action, said he expects to file an appeal to the decision as early as Friday afternoon.

"The decision was not entirely unexpected, but disappointing nonetheless. I respect Judge Covello immensely, but I disagree with what he has decided. We are going to appeal," he told msnbc.

Malloy's signature on the legislation was an emotional gesture following the December 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people including 20 first graders. The bi-partisan bill required universal background checks for all firearms purchasers, and added more than 100 firearms to the state's existing ban on assault weapons. It also placed eligibility rules for buying ammunition and banned the sale and purchase of high-capacity magazines.

"The common-sense measures we enacted last session will make our state safer, and I am grateful for the court’s seal of approval," Malloy wrote Thursday in a statement. "Let’s not forget that this has happened before. In prior instances when Connecticut has passed related firearms laws, there have been similar challenges and they have all been unsuccessful."

Jonathan Lowy, a lawyer who joined the state's defense of the case, told msnbc the ruling was the latest sign that courts see a compatibility between gun safety laws and the Second Amendment.

"There is now a growing and substantial body of precedent where courts have virtually unanimously agreed that the Second Amendment allows for a wide variety of reasonable gun laws, including bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines," Lowy said. "It's almost unanimous among the judiciary that reasonable gun laws short of a total ban are constitutional.”

Almost half of all states passed at least one new law that strengthened control in the 12 months since the Newtown massacre, according to information compiled last year by the Brady Campaign and Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. California topped the groups' 2013 Scorecard with the strongest gun-control measures in the country, followed by Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York. Arizona, which weakened two laws, ranked last with an "F" grade.

Eleven states didn't pass any laws related to guns during 2013. But 21 states - from Washington in the West and Minnesota in the Midwest, to Louisiana in the South and Rhode Island in the East - strengthened existing measures or enacted new ones.

Of the 28 that weakened gun laws, 10 also tightened firearms legislation. States with the weakest gun laws typically have some of the highest gun-death rates in the country.

Constructive measures were passed in some states with historically weak gun laws, including Florida and Texas.

Related: On gun reform, states put Washington to shame

Before the Connecticut decision, a federal court upheld most of New York's gun-control law before the turn of the new year on Dec. 31, 2013. The judge agreed that bans on large-capacity magazines and the sale of some semi-automatic rifles are constitutional. He rejected a restriction on the number of bullets gun owners can load in a legal 10-round magazine. New York was the first state after the Newtown tragedy to enact new gun safety measures when the bill passed last January.

Leaders in Colorado and Maryland strengthened measures in 2013 and are now on the defense against lawsuits from gun advocates. A shooter killed 12 individuals at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012, while a gunman killed two in a Columbia, Md., shopping mall just last weekend.

President Obama mentioned the word "gun" once during his State of the Union address earlier this week, amid a period of congressional gridlock on passing reform. Last year, he spoke the word seven times during an emotional call to action in the wake of the Newtown shootings. His efforts to pass a bi-partisan bill in Congress failed two months later in the Senate.

By the end of last year, Americans' support for tight gun-control laws had dropped to pre-Sandy Hook levels.

Nearly 800 adolescents under the age of 18 have died from guns since Newtown. But many advocates of reform find hope in numerous groups established around the country throughout 2013. And in Newtown, individuals are taking action in refusal of allowing a horrific tragedy to define their lives. Some youth groups from the East to West coasts are even refocusing the debate by lobbying on Capitol Hill and exploring possible solutions to violence.

Related: Making a senseless tragedy meaningful in Newtown 

"The measures enacted by the General Assembly in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy are entirely appropriate, sensible, and lawful," Attorney General George Jepsen of Connecticut said in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously defend them in the event of any appeal that may be filed of this decision."