Minnesota Law

Fall 2023

Upholding Existing Minnesota Gun Laws

Students from the new Gun Violence Prevention Clinic log first win upholding gun safety regulations in Minnesota

Gun Violence Prevention Clinic director Professor Megan Walsh, Aidan Earnest ’24, and Ted Mathiowetz ’24. Photo: Tony Nelson

Minnesota Law launched a new Gun Violence Prevention Clinic (GVP) earlier this year to train future attorneys to make an impact on gun laws and litigation. The clinic—a first-of-its-kind legal clinic in the nation— is already making a difference while ensuring that Minnesota continues to enforce its gun regulations. 

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court shook up the Constitutional analysis for determining whether a gun regulation violates the Second Amendment when it decided New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. Previously, judges weighing challenges to gun restrictions employed an interest-balancing test that considered whether the regulation promoted public safety.  

Under Bruen, courts no longer consider whether a gun law promotes the public interest. Instead, government entities now must prove that gun restrictions affecting one’s ability to keep or bear arms are consistent with the United States’ “historical tradition of firearm regulation,” using a test based solely on the Second Amendment text and early American history. To overcome a Second Amendment challenge, governments must identify historical laws that are analogous to the modern law in question, explains clinic founder and director Megan Walsh, a visiting assistant clinical professor of law. 

Criminal defense attorneys quickly started putting Bruen to the test in Minnesota, challenging the constitutionality of their clients’ gun charges. The Minnesota Attorney General’s office, which has a right to intervene in such challenges, turned to the Gun Violence Prevention Clinic for help. Its student lawyers serve as special assistant attorneys general, making the case for why gun regulations pass the Bruen test. 

Students clinched their first victory in September with State of Minnesota v. Sterling JaVale Robin-West. Ramsey District Court Judge DeAnne Hilgers ruled against the defense’s motion to dismiss based on a Second Amendment challenge to Robin-West’s charge for carrying a weapon in public without obtaining the required permit.  

3Ls Aidan Earnest and Ted Mathiowetz worked on this brief and several others. They built a record of historical analogs for Minnesota’s permit-to-carry statutes, aiming to prove that the state’s statutes pass the Bruen test. With Hilgers’ ruling, the case may proceed against Robin-West.  

Clinic participants are acting as lead attorneys on more than a dozen such challenges on behalf of the Minnesota Attorney General, drafting briefs, participating in oral arguments, and engaging in procedural hearings. Through this work, they gain vital experience and expertise in gun issues, Walsh says. 

“The Robin-West decision showed me that when we get involved in these cases, it makes a huge difference,” Walsh says. “Because of the clinic’s focus on the Second Amendment, the students become experts on Bruen. It makes these students a very valuable piece of the puzzle. They are providing the legal arguments that help courts realize that these statutes are still constitutional under the Bruen test.” 

Solicitor General Liz Kramer concurs. “Though it was only launched recently, the Gun Violence Prevention Clinic has already done remarkable work to create safer communities across our state,” she says. After the Bruen ruling led to reams of gun safety litigation in Minnesota, “The clinic has been an invaluable partner in responding to that deluge and defending the common-sense gun legislation keeping Minnesotans safe,” she says. “I know I speak for many within the Attorney General’s office when I say how grateful I am for the support that the law students have provided.”

Participating in the clinic was a priceless experience for Earnest and Mathiowetz, too. Earnest had not previously written a brief outside of coursework before he partnered with Mathiowetz on the Robin-West filing and other cases. Doing the wide-ranging research to build their arguments, including the required historical analogues, was meaningful work that will affect his career and the larger legal system. 

“The Bruen analysis is uncharted territory for a lot of cases and people are unsure how to argue it,” says Earnest. “We knew this would be a foundational case. The ruling was very exciting because a lot of these permitting statutes are important for communities to ensure safety and responsible gun ownership. To recognize that we will set a precedent, protect a good statute, and ensure the safety of communities was a really good feeling.” 

Mathiowetz is still stunned at the experience he and Earnest got, including working with Solicitor General Kramer and other attorneys general. “There is a chance that this is the most impactful work of my career, because gun licensing statutes by nature save lives,” he says. “Being able to play a small part in upholding this law has been an honor.” 

Clinic work also exposed Mathiowetz to the inner workings of litigation, notably related to constitutional law. “Working with the Attorney General’s office is not something I ever dreamed of doing in law school,” he adds. “The clinic experience outside the classroom is vital to legal education.”

Walsh, who brings significant experience from working in gun violence prevention and litigation, aims to grow the body of lawyers focusing on this area. Going forward, clinic students also will engage in work with the Attorney General’s office on civil Second Amendment challenges to gun laws, develop its own cases, and advise legislative bodies as they consider new gun regulations. 

“There is a real need for lawyers who have expertise in this area, and I want to create a pathway to give young attorneys that expertise,” Walsh says. “It’s an opportunity for students to see that in the face of these issues that affect us daily, there are things we can do as attorneys to make a difference. The students’ work is needed to create a safer society for all of us.”