by Eric Ruben, Jurisprudence Fellow, The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law
Tomorrow, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit will rehear oral arguments in Peruta v. County of San Diego, a case that spawned an originalist opinion last year that would have drastically increased the number of people publicly carrying handguns in California and Hawaii.
California, Hawaii, and seven states outside the Ninth Circuit have “may issue” laws and policies requiring applicants to show a heightened need for self-defense — something beyond a generalizable fear of being attacked — before they can receive a permit to carry concealed handguns in public. The plaintiffs in Peruta wanted to carry handguns, could not satisfy this requirement, and sued in federal court alleging a violation of their Second Amendment rights.
Peruta represents one of the most significant Second Amendment cases since 2008, when the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, the Supreme Court held for the first time in over 200 years that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a handgun inside the home for self-defense. In 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted, modern semi-automatic firearms didn’t exist and elected officials weren’t struggling to find solutions to a massive gun crime problem. But Heller expressly rejected an analysis that took into consideration the government’s interest in dealing with a deadly modern-day problem. Rather, the Heller majority, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, relied almost exclusively on an historical analysis for its conclusion, asserting that “[c]onstitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them.” The history considered in Heller, however, arguably does not dictate Heller’s holding. Liberal and conservative commentators alike have criticized Heller’s originalism for providing a misleading historical cloak for an activist judicial ruling.
Heller left unresolved many obvious issues, such as the scope of the right to bear arms outside the home and how lower courts should decide Second Amendment challenges — through a purely originalist analysis or by applying means-ends scrutiny that would take into consideration the government’s interest in preventing violent crime, death, and injuries. Those issues have been considered by lower courts in the hundreds of legal challenges to firearm regulations since Heller, and they are at the heart of Peruta.
The Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits have held that “may issue” laws like California’s in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are constitutional. Those courts, and the majority of lower courts considering Second Amendment challenges since Heller, have refrained from grounding their decisions in originalism. The rejection of originalism as the sole basis for decision making is likely a reflection of the fact that (as in Heller) the history is often disputed and busy judges are neither trained nor equipped to answer nuanced historical questions on the basis of necessarily limited records. When the Second Circuit considered New York’s “may issue” statute in 2012, it found the history “highly ambiguous” and upheld the law under intermediate scrutiny, concluding that the law was substantially related to the achievement of an important government interest — public safety and crime prevention. The Third and Fourth Circuits employed similar analyses to uphold New Jersey’s and Maryland’s “may issue” laws in 2013.