Second Amendment

  • October 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Saul Cornell, Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History, Fordham University

    It is hardly surprising to find amicus briefs by both gun rights groups and gun violence prevention groups in a major gun related case such as Wrenn v. District of Columbia. The issue in Wrenn, the scope of the right to travel armed in public, is one of the hottest being litigated since the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller, its controversial five-to-four gun rights decision. If the broad amicus interest in the case is to be expected, there is at least one surprising—and sneaky—aspect of the strategy pursued by one of the amici: the National Rifle Association. In Wrenn, the NRA has essentially taken an end-run around the word limits on amicus briefs by submitting two briefs—one under its own name and another by a group of gun rights advocates with close ties to the NRA, which the NRA represents as a scholarly brief by historians. Even more troubling is the attempt by one of the latter brief’s signers, David Kopel, a long time gun rights and libertarian activist to trumpet their brief on The Volokh Conspiracy, a widely read libertarian law blog that is now hosted by The Washington Post.

    The NRA “historians'” brief was submitted on behalf of a gun-rights foundation in California and five individuals, only two of whom have PhD’s in history or a related discipline. One of those, Joyce Lee Malcolm, holds an NRA-funded chair at George Mason law school. It is the only chair I can think of which seems to carry an ideological litmus test for its holder. The other full time scholar on the brief, Robert Cottrol, is one of the trustees of the NRA’s Civil Rights Defense Fund.

    The mere fact that one takes funding from a source with a particular ideological or policy agenda does not, of course, necessarily discredit the actual research produced with those funds.  That must ultimately be judged on its own merits. (Full disclosure:  About a decade ago I received a grant from a foundation interested in gun control, although my research challenged the prevailing  collective rights theory of the Second Amendment then supported by the foundation.) And none of this would matter in the end if the facts presented in the NRA historians' brief were accurate and the arguments it made historically plausible. Unfortunately, neither of these turns out to be the case.

  • September 29, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    Richard L. Hasen at Talking Points Memo contends that the future composition of the Supreme Court is “the most important civil rights cause of our time,” for it will determine the fate of many current civil rights struggles.

    In The Washington Post, Geoffrey R. Stone and Will Creeley urge colleges and universities to publicly reaffirm their commitment to free speech on campus.

    In Washington Monthly, Steve Sanders criticizes the Christian right for hijacking the term “religious liberty,” which once reflected a bedrock American value, and abusing it such that it “became just another synonym for bigotry.”

    G. Ben Cohen and Michael Admirand at the Harvard Law and Policy Review discuss the fallibility of finality in the legal system, especially in cases involving capital punishment.

    Eric M. Ruben and Saul Cornell in The Yale Law Journal argue that recent decisions to strike down bans on the public carrying of handguns are rooted in nineteenth century Southern opinions that reflect a regional, outdated conception of the Second Amendment.

  • June 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    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.

  • December 3, 2014

    by Christopher Durocher.

    Six years ago, in Heller v. District of Columbia, a divided Supreme Court held for the first time that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual right to bear arms. This decision called into question the viability of gun-safety regulations across the country, including in high-crime urban areas in which the need to address gun violence is particularly acute.  Just this past July, a federal district court judge in DC concluded, “In light of Heller [and its] progeny, there is no longer any basis on which this Court can conclude that the District of Columbia’s total ban on the public carrying of ready-to-use handguns outside the home is constitutional under any level of scrutiny.” It’s not so clear, however, that Supreme Court precedent or the Second Amendment, itself, require the rejection of this and other gun-safety regulations.

    In the ACS Issue Brief “The Constitutional Case for Limiting Public Carry,” Professor Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University Fowler School of Law examines the Second Amendment’s historical context and concludes that, even accepting an originalist reading that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to bear arms, the drafters of the Second Amendment anticipated the need for and value of gun-safety regulations. Far from proscribing regulation of firearms, the drafters understood that regulation was appropriate, including the types of restrictions on open and concealed public carry that cities throughout the United States have adopted.

  • July 28, 2014

    by Ellery Weil

    The New York Times is calling for the federal government to repeal laws banning marijuana, saying that as a substance it is less dangerous than alcohol, and the social costs of keeping it illegal are too vast to justify its current legal status. “The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to the FBI figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.”

    Prachi Gupta in a piece for Salon explores the recent federal judge’s ruling that D.C.’s public handgun ban is unconstitutional.

    NPR’s Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses Alabama’s high rate of death penalty sentences, especially in light of recent debate surrounding capital punishment. On MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry,” ACS Vice President of Network Advancement Sarah Knight discussed the recent Arizona death penalty debacle, where it took the state almost two hours to execute a condemned death row inmate. 

    Sarah Kliff at Vox reports on pro-choice legislators using the Supreme Court buffer zone ruling as a guideline for new, safer abortion clinics which can be protected as effectively as possible. On the same “Melissa Harris-Perry” show, ACS’s Sarah Knight joined a discussion about the Supreme Court’s opinion earlier this summer invalidating Massachusetts’ abortion clinic buffer zone law.