12 October 2009

A Layman's Guide to Heller

By Randy Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University Law Center. Professor Barnett is counsel on an amicus brief in Heller v. District of Columbia filed by the Academics for the Second Amendment. A condensed version of this piece was published in the Wall Street Journal on March 18th as “Gun Rights Show Down”.


Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Heller v. District of Columbia, a suit brought by several DC citizens contending that the ban on the possession of operable firearms inside one’s home violates the Second Amendment. The Circuit Court of Appeals for DC agreed and held the ban to be unconstitutional. However it is decided, Heller is already historic. For the first time in recent memory, the Supreme Court will consider the original meaning of a significant passage of the Constitution unencumbered by its own prior decisions; and the majority and dissenting opinions in this case will be taught in law schools for years to come. Here’s a layman’s guide the significance of the case—and its limits.

Heller Will be Decided on Originalist Grounds. Among law professors, enforcing the original meaning of the Constitution is highly controversial. Critics of originalism deny that we should be ruled by the “dead hand of the past.” They prefer following Supreme Court precedents that may or may not be consistent with original meaning. Any justice who today professes a commitment to originalism is branded a radical; and all Supreme Court nominees are now grilled on their commitment to the doctrine of stare decisis. But what are old precedents if not the “dead hand” of dead justices?

Significantly, then, both sides in Heller are making only originalist arguments. The challengers of the law contend that the original meaning of the Second Amendment protects an individual “right to keep and bear arms” that “shall not be abridged.” In response, the District does not contend that this right is outmoded and that the Second Amendment should now be reinterpreted in light of changing social conditions. Not at all. It contends instead that, because the original intentions of the framers of the Second Amendment was to protect the continued existence of “a well regulated militia,” the right it protects was limited to the militia context. (editorial note: I disagree with this since the Second Amendment should be interpreted as a unitary text within the Constitutional framework)

So one thing is certain. Whoever prevails, Heller will be an originalist decision. This shows that originalism remains the proper method of identifying the meaning of the Constitution. Heller reveals that today’s debate over originalism is really about whether old nonoriginalist Supreme Court decisions should supercede the Constitution’s original meaning when doing so leads to results that nonoriginalists like better.

The Second Amendment Protects an Individual Right. In the 1960s, gun control advocates dismissed the Second Amendment as protecting the so-called “collective right” of states to preserve their militias—notwithstanding that, everywhere else in the Constitution, a “right” of “the people” refers to an individual right of persons and the Tenth Amendment expressly distinguishes between “the people” and “the states.” Beginning in the 1980s, a deluge of scholarship showed why the collective rights interpretation is false.

Now even the District asserts the new theory that, while this right is individual, it is “conditioned” on a citizen being an active participant in an organized militia. Therefore, whoever wins, Heller won’t be based on a “collective” right of the states. This is also true of the approach advanced by U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement: find an individual right but then still largely defer to the judgment of the District (which is not how the Court protects other individual rights). Still, a ruling upholding an unconditioned individual right to arms and invalidating the ban is unlikely to have much affect on current gun laws. Here’s why.

Heller is a Federal Case. Because the District of Columbia is a federal entity, Heller provides a clean application of the Second Amendment which, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, originally applied only to the federal government. Before a state or municipal gun law can be challenged, the Supreme Court will have to decide that the right to keep and bear arms is also protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, which limits state powers. This conclusion is not forgone.

Nowadays, the Court asks whether a particular rights is “incorporated” into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, an unpopular doctrine among some conservatives. Of course, after recognizing an unconditioned individual right in Heller, affording it less protection from states than other enumerated rights now receive would be awkward—especially given the overwhelming evidence that the right to keep and bear arms was among the “privileges or immunities of citizens” to which the Fourteenth Amendment refers. Indeed, those who wrote the Amendment were concerned about enabling black freeman and white Republicans in the South to protect themselves from violence, including terrorism by local militias.

Heller Involves a Complete Ban on Operable Firearms in the Home. DC not only bans all handguns, it makes it illegal to possess in one’s home any operable firearm. No state has a comparable law; only scattered municipal firearms bans would be immediately threatened. And the Court would still have to decide how much scrutiny to give gun regulations that fall short of complete prohibition. Furthermore, the DC gun ban is only being challenged as it applies inside the home. So a ruling against DC would not immediately affect most laws governing firearms in other venues.

Most Existing Gun Regulations Would Likely Be Upheld. Under current Supreme Court doctrine, even the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly are subject to reasonable time, place, and manner regulations. So too would gun rights. However, because political support for the right to keep and bear arms is so powerful, only gun laws with pretty plausible justifications actually get enacted—e.g., laws against felons owning firearms. Therefore, even if the Court decides to scrutinize federal and state regulations, rightly or wrongly, most would likely be upheld.

Then Why Is Heller So Important? Although the implications of striking down the DC gun ban are limited, a decision upholding an unqualified individual right in Heller would still be significant. For one thing, it would be a vindication of originalism. More importantly, the private ownership of firearms is a hallmark of American liberty. The right to arms is so politically popular, even Democratic candidates for president feel they must support it—albeit only for hunters. Still, while most gun control activists now deny that they favor banning all firearms, their strategy seem to be to incrementally achieve prohibition by a series of statutes and tort suits that raise the costs of gun ownership and undermine the feasibility of using guns in self defense. Once the Supreme Court recognizes an individual right, lower court challenges to pretextual regulations that may not currently be brought may well be allowed.

But gun rights supporters should also be careful what they wish for. While a Supreme Court decision favoring gun rights in Heller might induce more legislative caution before enacting gun laws, it could also allow legislators to shift responsibility for assessing constitutionality to the courts. And supporters of the gun rights groups that have so effectively protected the right to arms might become apathetic thinking the courts would protect them. Now that Heller is before the Court, however, these risks are worth running. To shrink from enforcing a clear mandate of the Constitution—as, sadly, the Supreme Court has often done in the past—would create a new precedent that would be far more dangerous to liberty than any weapon in the hands of a citizen.

Published Sunday, March 30, 2008 6:00 AM by Federalist Society

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Editorial comment: Opinions in this are not necessarily ones I share