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“21st Century Assault Weapons And 18th Century Muskets”: Why The Next Supreme Court Is Poised To Roll Back Gun Rights

While Congress remains stymied by Republican opposition to any gun regulations, there are four reasons to think that the court system, and the Supreme Court in particular, may be evolving: Orlando, changes in the Court, and two recent court cases.

Remember that the NRA’s understanding of the Second Amendment is an extremely recent phenomenon. For more than 200 years, the legal and scholarly consensus was that, in the absence of a standing army, the Second Amendment was designed to enable states and localities to maintain a “well-regulated militia” by placing muskets and other weapons in the hands of local citizens.

Then came three decades of conservative political activism, focused on law schools, the National Rifle Association, and conservative think tanks. This effort culminated (but by no means concluded) with the 2008 case of D.C. v. Heller, which the Supreme Court found, for the first time, an individual right to gun ownership in the Second Amendment.

This view is now the dogma of tens of millions of Americans, propped up by an entire industry of selective histories and scholarship that can usually be traced back to the handful of philanthropists who paid for it. Indeed, the preamble of the Second Amendment has been written out of the Constitution to the point where the NRA’s national headquarters has a frieze engraved on a wall bearing only the second clause of the amendment, “the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Despite the fervency with which some hold that belief, however, it is very shaky as a judicial matter—and recent signs suggest it may collapse entirely. First, of course, is the Orlando massacre, the latest mass shooting to horrify America. While the Right has, of course, blamed the shooting solely on Islamic terrorism, it seems clear to most people that it was due to a combination of terrorism, homophobia, the personality of the shooter, and access to guns. Without the AR-15-style rifle, the shooter would likely not have killed 49 people.

The Orlando massacre doesn’t have any formal judicial meaning. But Supreme Court justices are also human beings, and it’s hard to see it not impacting how they view the relationship between 21st century assault weapons and 18th century muskets.

Second, there is the shift in the Court’s own membership. The Heller opinion was written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia for a 5-4 majority. That majority is now gone.

Interestingly, we know next to nothing about how a Justice Merrick Garland might vote on gun control. Contrary to the insinuations of Bill O’Reilly and other conservative talking heads, Judge Garland did not vote to uphold the District of Columbia’s gun law that was ultimately overturned in Heller; he only voted for the entire appeals court to hear the case, rather than just a three-judge panel. (One of the appeals court’s most conservative members voted the same way—but they were outvoted.) We have no clue of his view of the Second Amendment, and his more moderate outlook in general means that anything is possible.

Still, Garland is no Scalia—and if he isn’t confirmed, whoever President Hillary Clinton nominates is likely not to be a Garland-style moderate either. So the pendulum may swing back on gun rights simply as a function of the Court’s membership.

Two lesser-known developments, though, may be even more telling.

The first of these is that the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal brought by a challenger to a state’s assault weapons ban, upholding the gun-control law. This may mean many things: maybe a majority of justices think the appeals court got it right, or maybe they don’t see enough of a conflict among the circuit courts, or maybe they think this case isn’t the best test case to take, or maybe the short-handed court is limiting its workload, or who knows—it could be anything.

But at the very least, it means the Court does not see the ban as a horrifyingly unconstitutional travesty that requires immediate judicial remedy. Contrast that with two of the cases still outstanding this year: Texas’s challenge to the Obama administration’s immigration policies, and Texas’s defense of its abortion clinic regulations. The Court not only took these two cases but issued (or upheld) injunctions on the enforcement of the challenged rules.

Not so in the assault weapons ban case.

Finally, there’s a case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, decided earlier this month, that provides some of the best intellectual rationale for limiting, if not overruling, Heller.

That case, Peruta v. City of San Diego, dealt with California’s strict requirements to obtain a “concealed carry” permit. (They are only available to limited groups of people, such as guards, messengers, hunters, or target shooters.) Do those requirements violate the Second Amendment? The Ninth Circuit, by a vote of 8 to 3, said no.

Writing for the court, Judge William Fletcher wrote an extensively researched originalist opinion worthy of Justice Scalia himself. Expressly avoiding the question of whether the Second Amendment gives citizens a right to carry weapons openly in public (a question left open by Heller as well), Judge Fletcher’s opinion focused on whether there is a Second Amendment right to carry concealed weapons.

To answer the question, he turned Scalia’s logic against him. The Heller opinion refuted the plain meaning of the constitutional text on the grounds that it codified a “pre-existing right” to bear arms for self-defense, not just for use in a militia. (That the opinion was by a self-proclaimed strict constructionist was an irony not lost on liberal commentators.) Thus the question became whether there was a “pre-existing right” (in America or pre-colonial England) to carry a concealed weapon in public.

And the answer was obvious: not in the least. On the contrary, English common law, colonial regulations, and state statutes dating back as far as the year 1299 prohibited carrying a concealed weapon. (That 1299 regulation provided that sheriffs prohibit anyone from “going armed within the realm without the king’s license.”) The masterful opinion cited English laws and opinions from 1299, 1304, 1308, 1328, 1388, 1419, 1444, 1541, 1594, 1613 (“bearing of Weapons covertly… hath ever beene… straitly forbidden”), 1686, 1694, 1716, and 1782; and American state cases and statutes from 1822, 1833, 1840, 1842, 1846, 1850, 1868, 1871, 1875, 1876, 1879, 1885, 1889, 1890, 1891, 1897, and 1899—all of which, save a single outlier (Kentucky, 1822), upheld bans on carrying a concealed weapon even in the face of general rights to own or carry firearms in general.

Applying the Supreme Court’s own methodology, the Ninth Circuit reached the obvious conclusion: whatever the Second Amendment does protect, it does not protect concealed-carry rights. Thus the California law is constitutional.

Along the way, the Ninth Circuit, while bound to respect Heller, seriously limited its application. It would not be logically difficult to extend an individual gun right to a right to concealed carry, but Heller was not a logical opinion; it was an historical one. In its view (similar, incidentally, to the conservative dissents in the same-sex marriage cases), history, not logical reasoning, is what determines whether a right exists.

It’s not hard to see how this use of conservative constitutional logic for a substantively liberal outcome would play out in future cases. Is there a historical right to own an automatic weapon? To amass unlimited amounts of guns and ammo? To bring weapons into schools and sporting events? Of course not.

More generally, if history is to be our guide—as judicial conservatives usually insist—then surely it is appropriate to factor in the quantity of firepower involved, which could enable the government to regulate nearly all contemporary weapons.

Of course, one factor unchanged by these four considerations—Orlando, the Court, the assault weapons case, and Peruta—is the way in which gun rights has become a symbol, for white American conservatives, of the good ol’ days, limited government and exceptionalist American values. Indeed, the logic is often adolescent in nature; if it pisses off the liberals, it must be a good thing. That attitude, combined with the unprecedented gerrymandering of the House of Representatives, makes it unlikely that federal legislative action will come any time soon even though a majority of Americans support it.

But if Orlando has awakened the American public, in a way that Virginia Tech, Colombine, Sandy Hook, Roanoke, and San Bernadino did not, then these judicial changes might provide the avenue for that change to occur. They may not provide the will—but they do provide the way.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, June 22, 2016

June 23, 2016 Posted by | 2nd Amendment, Gun Control, National Rifle Association, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gun Laws And What The Second Amendment Intended”: When The NRA Didn’t Support Everything That Goes ‘Bang’!

As school shootings erupt with sickening regularity, Americans once again are debating gun laws. Quickly talk turns to the Second Amendment.

But what does it mean? History offers some surprises: It turns out in each era, the meaning is set not by some pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of public debate and political activism. And gun rights have always coexisted with responsibility.

At 27 words long, the provision is the shortest sentence in the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Modern readers squint at its stray commas and confusing wording. The framers believed in freedom to punctuate.

It turns out that to the framers, the amendment principally focused on those “well regulated militias.” These militias were not like anything we know now: Every adult man (eventually, every white man) served through their entire lifetime. They were actually required to own a gun, and bring it from home.

Think of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, who did battle with the British army. These squads of citizen soldiers were seen as a bulwark against tyranny. When the Constitution was being debated, many Americans feared the new central government could crush the 13 state militias. Hence, the Second Amendment. It protected an individual right – to fulfill the public responsibility of militia service.

What about today’s gun-rights debates? Surprisingly, there is not a single word about an individual right to a gun for self-defense in the notes from the Constitutional Convention; nor with scattered exceptions in the transcripts of the ratification debates in the states; nor on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as it marked up the Second Amendment, where every single speaker talked about the militia. James Madison’s original proposal even included a conscientious objector clause: “No person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

To be clear, there were plenty of guns in the founding era. Americans felt they had the right to protect themselves, especially in the home, a right passed down from England through common law. But there were plenty of gun laws, too. Boston made it illegal to keep a loaded gun in a home, due to safety concerns. Laws governed the location of guns and gunpowder storage. New York, Boston and all cities in Pennsylvania prohibited the firing of guns within city limits. States imposed curbs on gun ownership. People deemed dangerous were barred from owning weapons. Pennsylvania disarmed Tory sympathizers.

That balance continued throughout our history, even in the Wild West. A historic photo of Dodge City, Kansas, the legendary frontier town, shows a sign planted in the middle of its main street: “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.” Few thought the Constitution had much to say about it.

Through much of history, this balance evoked little controversy. Even the National Rifle Association embraced it. Today the NRA is known for harsh anti-government rhetoric, but it was started to train former Union soldiers in marksmanship. In the 1930s, the group testified for the first federal gun law. In 1968, its American Rifleman magazine told its readers the NRA “does not necessarily approve of everything that goes ‘Bang!’”

Of course, over the past three decades, the NRA shifted sharply. At the group’s 1977 annual meeting, still remembered as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” moderate leaders were voted out and the organization was recast as a constitutional crusade.

Together with even more intense advocates, such as the Second Amendment Foundation, of Bellevue, Washington, they are quick to decry any gun laws as an assault on a core, sacred constitutional right. They waged a relentless constitutional campaign to change the way we see the amendment.

Remarkably, the first time the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to gun ownership was in 2008. The decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, rang loudly. But a close read shows that Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleagues make the familiar point that gun rights and responsibilities go together. The court said that, like all constitutional rights, there could be limits. “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote.

That’s how judges have interpreted this constitutional right. Dozens of courts have examined gun laws since 2008. Overwhelmingly they have upheld them, despite the claims of gun-rights attorneys. Yes, there is an individual right to gun ownership — but with rights come responsibilities. Society, too, has a right to safety, and there is a compelling public interest in laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

To be sure, the final scope of the constitutional provision has not been determined. The Supreme Court has not spoken again. It is infallible because it is final, as Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, not final because it is infallible. But the greatest controversy revolves around issues such as the rules for carrying a gun outside the home.

So what does the Second Amendment really mean? From the debate over the Constitution to today’s gun fights, the answer is really up to us, to the people. That answer changes over time. But one thing has remained surprisingly constant: Americans cherish freedom, but believe passionately that rights demand responsibilities. It’s hard to think of an area where that insight matters more than when it comes to ensuring that lethal weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

 

By: Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law; The National Memo, July 14, 2014

July 15, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Gun Control, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“What Did The Framers Really Mean?”: It Wasn’t To Trump The Public Good

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.”

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

 

By: Joe Nocera, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 26, 2014

May 27, 2014 Posted by | Mass Shootings, National Rifle Association, Second Amendment | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Grading John Paul Stevens’ Work”: When Rewriting The Second Amendment, Be As Specific As Possible

As the gun nuts will surely point out, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens doesn’t know how to distinguish automatic from semi-automatic firearms. I’ve never understood why this distinction is so important to gun nuts. As a legal matter, obviously it is important to know the difference. But the reason that non-gun enthusiasts make this mistake so often is because the semi-automatic weapons are so incredibly lethal that the distinction doesn’t make any practical difference to them. Does anyone think Adam Lanza’s semi-automatic weapon was inadequate to the job of killing 20 kids and 6 teachers in a couple of minutes?

It’s really the ease and quickness that killers like Lanza and James Eagan Jones Holmes (the Aurora, Colorado shooter) can mow down large groups of people that is the concern.

In any case, Stevens’ proposed amendment to the Second Amendment is sloppy. It would make it impossible for a National Guard officer to disarm an insubordinate underling.

As a result of the rulings in Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, which was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their power to ensure that their militias were “well regulated,” has given federal judges the ultimate power to determine the validity of state regulations of both civilian and militia-related uses of arms. That anomalous result can be avoided by adding five words to the text of the Second Amendment to make it unambiguously conform to the original intent of its draftsmen. As so amended, it would read:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people   to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

As we know, the wording of these things can get twisted over time. So, if you want to rewrite the Second Amendment you should be as specific as possible. I’d go with:

A well regulated Militia is no longer necessary to the security of a free State. We now call those things the Army Reserve, the Navy Reserve, the Marine Corps Reserve, the Air Force Reserve, the Coast Guard Reserve, the Army National Guard of the United States, and the Air National Guard of the United States. If you serve in one of those Organizations, your weapon will be provided for you.

See, isn’t that better?

 

By: Martin Longman, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 13, 2014

 

 

 

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, John Paul Stevens, Second Amendment | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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