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Federal court ruling may lead to ban on California nunchucks being overturned
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Earlier this year Manteca Police arrested a homeless man for possession of nunchucks. They may not be able to do that in the future.

Nunchucks, a device consisting of twin sticks joined by chain or rope, are illegal to possess in California except in martial art classes. They are outright illegal to have in your possession in New York, Arizona, and Massachusetts.

The martial arts devices can be traced back to Okinawa, Japan. Forty or so years ago they became popular to a degree via the Bruce Lee movies. You may even have seen them in the animated Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show in their fight scenes.

Lawmakers in California and the other three states where they were outlawed back in the 1970s feared impressionable young men would use nunchucks to commit crime and terrorize people.

Why this should interest you has everything to do with a decision by a federal judge in New York who ruled that state’s 44-year-ban on nunchucks is a violation of the Second Amendment. That’s right, in a time when there is a movement to gut and/or void the Second Amendment a judicial ruling clearly negates the crowd that wants to narrowly interpret the Second Amendment as the ability to own single-action guns (no other weapons) that existed in 1776 for the sole purpose of a citizens’ militia. Given the need nowadays among progressives to dilute a ruling they don’t favor by pointing out the party affiliation of the president that nominated them, Federal Judge Pamela Chen was a Barack Obama appointee.

The case involved James Maloney whose home was raided in 2000 by police that ended up charging him with a misdemeanor for possessing nunchucks. Maloney’s nunchucks are known as Shafan Ha Lavan — a slight variation of those popularized in Bruce Lee movies.

Why would Maloney possess such a weapon? As a boy his father was stabbed to death. Mahoney liked the idea he could defend himself from a distance using a weapon such as nunchucks.

Mahoney happens to be a lawyer. He sued in federal court for the right to bear nunchucks. During the 15 years it has taken Mahoney’s case to make its way through the federal court system, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its Heller decision that weapons in common use are legal. The high court also issued the McDonald ruling that said the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms applied to the states.

Mahoney had just requested Judge Chen to overturn the New York law banning the personal ownership of nunchucks. Because of the Heller ruling, however, Chen overturned not just New York’s law banning the personal possession of nunchucks but also the prohibition of the sale, manufacture, and purchase of nunchucks. Chen’s logic was simple. There were 65,000 plus nunchucks purchased by Americans between 1995 and 2018 so therefore they are in common use.

The odds are the New York State Attorney General will appeal the decision to be Second District Court of Appeals.

The Second Amendment in its entirety reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary in the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms will not be infringed.”

Take away the first 12 words that serve as an observation more than a definitive course of action and you have the gist of the Second Amendment.

Chen’s ruling seems to side with both those who believe the constitution should be strictly interpreted and those that believe it is a living document bending with the times.

The assault on the Second Amendment in the knee jerk echo chamber that social media can be at times has framed the debate as if it is exclusively about guns. Some take it further using the first 12 words as their justification to say the Second Amendment only covers muskets and militias formed by the government.

“Arms” refers to weapons of which guns and nunchucks are.

The Second Amendment, like the rest of the amendments, is not an absolute right given that rights conferred by amendments often clash and that the Bill of Rights is designed as a governance document. Given there are 325 million Americans, it is impossible for all rights to be absolute. Cry “gun” as a joke in a crowded theater and you will face criminal sanctions and — if anyone is injured or dies — personal liability.

Where Chen’s ruling goes next will be interesting. New York also bans slingshots, switch blades, gravity knives, and brass knuckles. Based on the ruling the door has been opened to challenge the legality of the ban on those weapons as well.

Then there is the fact the states have continued to erode the Second Amendment despite the high court’s McDonald ruling in 2010. That’s because the high court since 2010 has declined to hear appeals on McDonald-related lawsuits leaving the 2010 decision slowly twisting in the wind.

The Second Amendment is not just about guns nor is it just about a volunteer militia.

While there is a connection between automatic weapons and nunchucks, the line connecting the dots is a long one. And because of that the courts have wisely allowed many of the laws that temper how weapons are designed to stand such as likely will be the case with bump stocks. No matter how much you wish laws that would relegate all semi-automatic weapons and such illegal for individuals to possess to the point they are banned you would get a giant leap over decades of rulings to make that happen. The Heller decision is only one example.

The ban of nunchucks in California under the federal court ruling can be challenged using the legal logic of the Second District Court.

Before the voters downgraded a wide variety of crimes a few years back, possessing nunchucks in California outside of a martial arts studio was classified as a felony. 

Google “deaths” or “injuries” from nunchucks and you won’t get any information on such statistics. That is the exactly opposite if you Googled “deaths” or “injuries” from guns.

Nunchucks are used virtually every day in a martial arts class somewhere in California by students. Many of the students fall in the category of “young men” that state lawmakers feared would use what Newsweek called ‘killing sticks” for mayhem so they moved to make them illegal in 1974. Good luck counting the deaths in martial arts studios from nunchucks.

The truth is a wooden handle of a rake or a tool can easily do the damage that a pair of nunchucks could do. That may not be the case with a well-trained nunchucks user in a martial arts studio but that said why didn’t the state also ban long wooden poles in 1974 as well?

It underscores why any move to gut or neuter the Second Amendment even after a hellish mass shooting is not something that will be a slam dunk despite the justifiable rage.

Emotional reaction not based on facts got nunchucks banned in terms of personal possession in four states. And despite efforts — at least until now — the bans still stand except for in New York.

Nunchucks are a reminder the Second Amendment is not just about guns nor or the laws made in its name one way or another required to be based on whether whatever the weapon in question leads to somebody’s death or injury.