Insty points today to an interesting New York Times piece, A Liberal Case for Gun Rights Helps Sway Judiciary. It’s interesting enough that I’m not going to fisk it so much as expand upon it:
In March, for the first time in the nation’s history, a federal appeals court struck down a gun control law on Second Amendment grounds. Only a few decades ago, the decision would have been unimaginable.
Only a few decades before that and that same decision would have been a foregone conclusion.
There used to be an almost complete scholarly and judicial consensus that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right of the states to maintain militias. That consensus no longer exists — thanks largely to the work over the last 20 years of several leading liberal law professors, who have come to embrace the view that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns.
Err, no. There was a scholarly and judicial consensus that the Second Amendment protected only the rights of white men – perhaps the most blatant example of this attitude being exhibited in Florida’s 1941 Watson v. Stone decision, where one of the concurring judges wrote:
I know something of the history of this legislation. The original Act of 1893 was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State drawn here for the purpose of working in turpentine and lumber camps…. [T]he Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers and to thereby reduce the unlawful homicides that were prevalent in turpentine and saw-mill camps and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population…. [I]t is a safe guess to assume that more than 80% of the white men living in the rural sections of Florida have violated this statute…. [T]here has never been, within my knowledge, any effort to enforce the provisions of this statute as to white people, because it has been generally conceded to be in contravention of the Constitution and non-enforceable if contested.
This quote is excerpted from a Robert Cottrol and Raymond Diamond Chicago-Kent Law Review paper available here. A shorter version of this quote appears in the Amicus Curae brief filed on behalf of Parker et al. by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In those two decades, breakneck speed by the standards of constitutional law, they have helped to reshape the debate over gun rights in the United States. Their work culminated in the March decision, Parker v. District of Columbia, and it will doubtless play a major role should the case reach the United States Supreme Court.
Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, said he had come to believe that the Second Amendment protected an individual right.
“My conclusion came as something of a surprise to me, and an unwelcome surprise,” Professor Tribe said. “I have always supported as a matter of policy very comprehensive gun control.”
The first two editions of Professor Tribe’s influential treatise on constitutional law, in 1978 and 1988, endorsed the collective rights view. The latest, published in 2000, sets out his current interpretation.
Which the paper leaves out, but I will not since it’s one of my favorite quotes:
Perhaps the most accurate conclusion one can reach with any confidence is that the core meaning of the Second Amendment is a populist / republican / federalism one: Its central object is to arm ‘We the People’ so that ordinary citizens can participate in the collective defense of their community and their state. But it does so not through directly protecting a right on the part of states or other collectivities, assertable by them against the federal government, to arm the populace as they see fit. Rather the amendment achieves its central purpose by assuring that the federal government may not disarm individual citizens without some unusually strong justification consistent with the authority of the states to organize their own militias. That assurance in turn is provided through recognizing a right (admittedly of uncertain scope) on the part of individuals to possess and use firearms in the defense of themselves and their homes — not a right to hunt for game, quite clearly, and certainly not a right to employ firearms to commit aggressive acts against other persons — a right that directly limits action by Congress or by the Executive Branch and may well, in addition, be among the privileges or immunities of United States citizens protected by §1 of the Fourteenth Amendment against state or local government action.
It makes me feel good every time I read it – especially the part about the Fourteenth Amendment.
Several other leading liberal constitutional scholars, notably Akhil Reed Amar at Yale and Sanford Levinson at the University of Texas, are in broad agreement favoring an individual rights interpretation. Their work has in a remarkably short time upended the conventional understanding of the Second Amendment, and it set the stage for the Parker decision.
The earlier consensus, the law professors said in interviews, reflected received wisdom and political preferences rather than a serious consideration of the amendment’s text, history and place in the structure of the Constitution. “The standard liberal position,” Professor Levinson said, “is that the Second Amendment is basically just read out of the Constitution.”
It had to be, otherwise you couldn’t selectively disarm different groups.
The Second Amendment says, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” (Some transcriptions of the amendment omit the last comma.)
If only as a matter of consistency, Professor Levinson continued, liberals who favor expansive interpretations of other amendments in the Bill of Rights, like those protecting free speech and the rights of criminal defendants, should also embrace a broad reading of the Second Amendment. And just as the First Amendment’s protection of the right to free speech is not absolute, the professors say, the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms may be limited by the government, though only for good reason.
Time for another of my favorite quotes, or part of one, this time from 9th Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski from his dissent to the decision to deny an en banc rehearing of California’s Silveira v. Lockyer “Assault Weapons Ban” case:
Judges know very well how to read the Constitution broadly when they are sympathetic to the right being asserted. We have held, without much ado, that “speech, or…the press” also means the Internet…and that “persons, houses, papers, and effects” also means public telephone booths….When a particular right comports especially well with our notions of good social policy, we build magnificent legal edifices on elliptical constitutional phrases – or even the white spaces between lines of constitutional text. But, as the panel amply demonstrates, when we’re none too keen on a particular constitutional guarantee, we can be equally ingenious in burying language that is incontrovertibly there.
It is wrong to use some constitutional provisions as springboards for major social change while treating others like senile relatives to be cooped up in a nursing home until they quit annoying us. As guardians of the Constitution, we must be consistent in interpreting its provisions. If we adopt a jurisprudence sympathetic to individual rights, we must give broad compass to all constitutional provisions that protect individuals from tyranny. If we take a more statist approach, we must give all such provisions narrow scope. Expanding some to gargantuan proportions while discarding others like a crumpled gum wrapper is not faithfully applying the Constitution; it’s using our power as federal judges to constitutionalize our personal preferences.
The individual rights view is far from universally accepted. “The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion supports the near-unanimous view of the federal courts that the constitutional right to be armed is linked to an organized militia,” said Dennis A. Henigan, director of the legal action project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The exceptions attract attention precisely because they are so rare and unexpected.”
Scholars who agree with gun opponents and support the collective rights view say the professors on the other side may have been motivated more by a desire to be provocative than by simple intellectual honesty.
So say the intellectually dishonest…
“Contrarian positions get play,” Carl T. Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams University, wrote in a 2000 study of Second Amendment scholarship. “Liberal professors supporting gun control draw yawns.”
If the full United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit does not step in and reverse the 2-to-1 panel decision striking down a law that forbids residents to keep handguns in their homes, the question of the meaning of the Second Amendment is almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court. The answer there is far from certain.
That too is a change. In 1992, Warren E. Burger, a former chief justice of the United States appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, expressed the prevailing view.
“The Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to have firearms at all,” Mr. Burger said in a speech. In a 1991 interview, Mr. Burger called the individual rights view “one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word “fraud” — on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Even as he spoke, though, the ground was shifting underneath him.
Here’s one of the things I find really irritating. Yes, Burger said what is attributed to him here, but no one seems to be willing to give any context or background on his comments. The interview referred to was for Parade magazine – the tabloid included in most Sunday newspapers. Here’s what else he said in an essay in that magazine:
Americans also have a right to defend their homes, and we need not challenge that. Nor does anyone seriously question that the Constitution protects the right of hunters to own and keep sporting guns for hunting game any more than anyone would challenge the right to own and keep fishing rods and other equipment for fishing — or to own automobiles.
Where, I must ask, does the Constitution say anything about defending ones home or hunting? And what makes Justice Burger the exclusive authority? He was one of nine Justices on the bench. If
Samuel Alito John Roberts were to say in an interview that the Second Amendment definitely protects an individual right, does the fact that he holds the Chief Justice’s chair give him some power that the other Justices lack? Granted, Burger made his speech and gave his interview after he retired, but thankfully he never “constitutionalized his personal preferences” on this topic while he sat on the bench.
In 1989, in what most authorities say was the beginning of the modern era of mainstream Second Amendment scholarship, Professor Levinson published an article in The Yale Law Journal called “The Embarrassing Second Amendment.”
“The Levinson piece was very much a turning point,” said Mr. Henigan of the Brady Center. “He was a well-respected scholar, and he was associated with a liberal point of view politically.”
In an interview, Professor Levinson described himself as “an A.C.L.U.-type who has not ever even thought of owning a gun.”
And that piece is available all over the web. I highly recommend that you read it if you have not. It’s a very rare exhibit of intellectual honesty in print.
Robert A. Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group that supports gun rights, and a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Parker case, said four factors accounted for the success of the suit. The first, Mr. Levy said, was “the shift in scholarship toward an individual rights view, particularly from liberals.”
He also cited empirical research questioning whether gun control laws cut down on crime; a 2001 decision from the federal appeals court in New Orleans that embraced the individual rights view even as it allowed a gun prosecution to go forward; and the Bush administration’s reversal of a longstanding Justice Department position under administrations of both political parties favoring the collective rights view.
Filing suit in the District of Columbia was a conscious decision, too, Mr. Levy said. The gun law there is one of the most restrictive in the nation, and questions about the applicability of the Second Amendment to state laws were avoided because the district is governed by federal law.
“We wanted to proceed very much like the N.A.A.C.P.,” Mr. Levy said, referring to that group’s methodical litigation strategy intended to do away with segregated schools.
Professor Bogus, a supporter of the collective rights view, said the Parker decision represented a milestone in that strategy. “This is the story of an enormously successful and dogged campaign to change the conventional view of the right to bear arms,” he said.
Correction: “conventional view” among members of the government – not the citizenry.
The text of the amendment is not a model of clarity, and arguments over its meaning tend to be concerned with whether the first part of the sentence limits the second. The history of its drafting and contemporary meaning provide support for both sides as well.
The Supreme Court has not decided a Second Amendment case since 1939. That ruling was, as Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a liberal judge on the federal appeals court in San Francisco acknowledged in 2002, “somewhat cryptic,” again allowing both sides to argue that Supreme Court precedent aided their interpretation of the amendment.
Still, nine federal appeals courts around the nation have adopted the collective rights view, opposing the notion that the amendment protects individual gun rights. The only exceptions are the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, and the District of Columbia Circuit. The Second Circuit, in New York, has not addressed the question.
Linda Singer, the District of Columbia’s attorney general, said the debate over the meaning of the amendment was not only an academic one.
“It’s truly a life-or-death question for us,” she said. “It’s not theoretical. We all remember very well when D.C. had the highest murder rate in the country, and we won’t go back there.”
What?!?! D.C. had the highest murder rate in the country with the ban in place! It traded off with Chicago several times. There’s no reason to assume that it can’t “win” that dubious position once again.
Here’s a bet I’m more than willing to make: End the ban. Allow residents of D.C. to possess firearms for their own defense again. At worst, criminal homicide in D.C. will remain unchanged. The rate will not go up.
The decision in Parker has been stayed while the full appeals court decides whether to rehear the case.
Should the case reach the Supreme Court, Professor Tribe said, “there’s a really quite decent chance that it will be affirmed.”
I certainly hope so. But if the D.C. Circuit court overturns, I fully expect SCOTUS to deny cert. and dodge the question for another few years.