by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law; Author, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America
* May 15 marks the 75th anniversary of United States v. Miller, a 1939 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of weapons that were not related to the “preservation or efficiency of a well regulated Militia.” For decades, this was the only consideration the Court gave the Second Amendment, and arguably, it was generally understood that the Amendment's scope was limited to the use of firearms in connection with military activities. This changed in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, and subsequently in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago, when the Court declared that the Second Amendment provided an "individual right to possess a firearm.” The Court explained that they were not overturning Miller; that Miller only limited the type of weapon to which the individual right applies. As we consider the constitutional, legal and policy questions that now surround the Second Amendment, we should take a step back and ask if the Supreme Court got it right in Heller and McDonald. How should the Second Amendment be interpreted? ACS is pleased to raise this important question with progressive constitutional scholars and historians in an ACSblog symposium this week, May 5 through May 9.
Heller was right. The Constitution protects the right of individuals to have arms for personal protection. Even if you don’t believe this accurately describes the original meaning of the Second Amendment – the history of which has confounded many – you should support the result if you believe the Constitution protects fundamental, unenumerated rights. There’s a long commitment in American constitutionalism to unwritten rights, including the right to privacy and the right to marry. In identifying which unwritten rights are protected by the Constitution, the courts ask whether the right, as a matter of history and tradition, has been respected by the American people. Under the doctrine of substantive due process, if the right is “objectively, deeply in this Nation’s history and tradition” it will be protected. The right of individuals to have guns for personal protection, especially in the home, easily passes this test.
The right of individuals to have a gun in the home for self-defense has long been respected by American law. Since the founding, no state has ever prohibited its residents from having a gun in the home. Although Washington, D.C. effectively banned guns in the home for self-defense and Chicago banned handguns (while allowing long guns), these idiosyncratic outliers only highlight the dominant, longstanding legal tradition of allowing individuals to own guns. In numerous due process cases, the Supreme Court has looked to the absence of laws prohibiting the relevant behavior as strong evidence of a deeply rooted right. In Roe v. Wade, the Court explained that abortions in early pregnancy were not barred under the common law. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Court recognized that laws singling out same-sex sodomy for criminal punishment, while allowing opposite-sex couples to engage in the same activity, were contrary to our legal traditions. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court denied substantive due process protection for the right to die by pointing to the long history and tradition of laws against suicide. There’s no history and tradition of laws preventing law-abiding people from having guns.