On Friday, a U.S. district court in New York struck down a four decade-old state law banning the possession of nunchucks. Judge Pamela K. Chen declared in a 32-page ruling Friday that the 1974 law is unconstitutional, violating the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms.
The law was first enacted as a response to state lawmakers’ fears that the popularity of martial arts a la Bruce Lee was inspiring hoodlums to get creative in their choice of weapons. The ban not only applied to would-be criminal nunchuckers on the street, it even banned the weapon’s use in martial arts training facilities. As The Washington Post points out, “They were so dangerous, lawmakers believed, that not even karate teachers could keep them in a locker at home.”
Enter plaintiff James Michael Maloney, a martial arts enthusiast, whose case against the law finally made it the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in January 2017. When the trial began, Maloney underscored the significance of the case in a blog post.
“The trial we are about to begin concerns the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” Maloney wrote. “As recently as ten years ago, the Supreme Court still had not given meaning and content to the provision in the Constitution that sets forth that right, although the Second Amendment has been part of our Constitution since 1791.Today, the balance between the exercise of that right and the recalcitrant plague of gun violence in America is finally beginning to be worked out.”
New York Penal Law § 265.01 criminalizes as a Class A misdemeanor the possession of nunchaku, in addition to a number of other weapons, some of which are likewise Kung Fu-themed: “A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when: (1) [h]e or she possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, plastic knuckles, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or ‘Kung Fu star.'”
Judge Chen summarized Maloney’s argument as asserting that the law “infringe[s] upon [his] rights as conferred by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States” to the extent it “criminalize[s] the simple possession of nunchaku within one’s home for martial-arts practice and/or home defense.”
The judge agreed. After noting that Maloney suggested partly repealing the law as it applies to at-home use, an approach Chen says the court does not have the authority to do, she then lays out her argument for throwing out the law in its entirety.
“Considering the scant evidence presented, the Court finds that Defendant has not met her burden to exclude nunchaku from the ambit of Second Amendment protection,” Chen writes. “Simply put, Defendant does not contradict the contention that the nunchaku’s primary use, which Defendant concedes is as ‘a tool from the sphere of martial arts’ (Dkt. 199, at 10), is a lawful one. To the extent any evidence was offered at trial regarding the ‘subjective motives of [nunchaku] owners,’ the Court has considered the testimony of Plaintiff himself, Pelletteri, and Orcutt as further support for the conclusion that the typical possession of nunchaku in this country is for recreational and other lawful purposes.”
After arguing against some of the other key counterarguments presented by the defendant, Chen concludes, “Therefore, because Defendant has failed to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, or even by a preponderance, that nunchakus are not typically used by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, she has failed to rebut the presumption that the possession and use of nunchaku is within the scope of the Second Amendment’s protections.”
Maloney celebrated the decision on his blog:
On December 14, 2018, the United States States District Court for the Eastern District of New York rendered a final decision (still subject to possible appeal) in Maloney v. Singas, my pro seconstitutional case, striking down virtually all of the provisions of the New York Penal Code that ban the possession, sale, manufacture, or transfer of nunchaku. In doing so, the Court granted relief somewhat beyond what I had asked for (but I am not about to complain). Thanks to the many who have helped in many ways along the way. It has been a path with heart.