Professors’ Statement Trumpets Constitutionality of Proposals to Curb Gun Violence

January 30, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) may believe the president has turned the Second Amendment on its head with a push for proposals to curb gun violence, but he’d do well to learn a bit more about the parameters of the amendment.

A good place to start would be a succinct letter signed by some of the nation’s leading constitutional law scholars that notes the Supreme Court has acknowledged the “presumptive constitutionality of laws designed to prevent gun violence, including restrictions on who has access to firearms and what types of firearms that they may have ….”

Grassley’s comments about the president’s call for new gun control measures came during today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. Grassley revealed his opposition to proposals to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines and suggested that violent video games are more responsible for mass shootings in the nation than easy access to military-style weapons.

UCLA Law School Professor Adam Winkler and University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey R. Stone crafted a statement on the constitutionality of certain measures to curb gun violence. As this blog has noted on more than one occasion the Second Amendment does not provide for an unlimited individual right to bear arms. The professors’ statement, signed by more than 45 law school professors, notes that as well. (Winkler is the adviser to the ACS UCLA law student chapter, and Stone is former chair of the ACS Board of Directors. Winkler is also author of the influential book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.)

Citing D.C. v. Heller, in which the high court found an individual right to own guns, the professors’ statement says in Heller Justice Antonin Scalia recognized that like other constitutional rights, “the Second Amendment is not absolute. The First Amendment, for example, provides that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,’ but the Supreme Court has long and consistently held that some types of speech – for example, defamation, obscenity and threats – can be regulated; that some people – for example, public employees, members of the military, students and prisoners – are subject to greater restrictions on their speech than others; and that the government can reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of speech. As Justice Scalia explained in Heller, the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment are likewise subject to appropriate regulation in order to enhance public safety.”

The statement, available here, goes onto to argue that proposals like universal background checks, regulation of high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style assault weapons are “clearly consistent with the Second Amendment.” The professors, add that they have “no view on the effectiveness or desirability of the policies reflected in the various proposals, but we all agree that none infringes on the core right identified in by the Court in Heller.”

Beyond explaining Heller, the statement reminds us that it is “consistent with the history of the right to keep and bear arms.”

The professors’ statement reads:

The founding fathers who wrote and ratified the Second Amendment also had laws to keep guns out of the hands of people thought to be untrustworthy. Such laws were necessary to ensure that the citizen militia referenced in the Second Amendment was ‘well regulated.’ In the 1800s, many states restricted the sale or public possession of concealable firearms. In the early twentieth century, the federal government restricted access to unusually dangerous weapons, such as machine guns, and states barred people convicted of certain felonies from possessing firearms. Laws such as these were routinely upheld by the courts, which recognized the legitimacy of legislative efforts to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people.

Sen. Grassley may have legitimate concerns regarding the effectiveness of the proposed regulations to curb gun violence. But his comments on the Second Amendment are misleading. The statement from Winkler and Stone and signed onto by other leading constitutional law scholars provides an accessible assessment of the constitutionality of such measures. The senator should read it.