Nahmod Law

The Second Amendment and Gun Control: Unanswered Questions


As most everyone knows by now, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court (5-4, opinion by Justice Scalia) for the first time found an individual Second Amendment right to possess a handgun in one’s home for self-defense.  Accordingly, it struck down a District of Columbia prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home. Thereafter, and not surprisingly, the Court (again 5-4) held in McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 3020 (2010), that the Second Amendment, through incorporation, applies fully to the states and local governments. See my post of November 8, 2010: Gun Control, the Second Amendment and Section 1983 After McDonald v. City of Chicago.

Heller‘s Dicta on Permissible Regulations

In Heller, Justice Scalia asserted that the Court’s decision did not mean that there were no limitations on this Second Amendment right. He listed the following kinds of governmental regulations that were still permissible.

1. Prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill

2. Prohibitions on the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as school and government buildings

3. Imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms

4. Prohibitions, historical in nature, on the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons” such as M-16 rifles.

Unanswered Questions

No constitutional right is absolute. So one question in the Second Amendment setting is what the level of scrutiny is. The Court in Heller ducked the issue, pointing out that whatever the standard, the District of Columbia’s prohibition could not stand. On the other hand, the Court stated that the standard is more than rational basis. That’s all we know at this point.

The level of scrutiny is surely relevant to the Court’s dicta on permissible regulations, particularly with regard to restrictions on, and qualifications for, gun ownership and also with regard to those “sensitive places” where the carrying of firearms may be prohibited.

The Court also did not discuss the question whether the Second Amendment right to possess firearms for self-defense applies outside the home. There is already a split in the circuits on this.

A Circuit Split On Carrying

The Seventh Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Posner, held that the Second Amendment does indeed apply outside the home. It therefore struck down an Illinois statute prohibiting carrying a loaded gun, concealed or not. Moore v. Madigan, 702 F.3d 933 (7th Cir. 2012)(2-1), petition for en banc rehearing denied. In contrast, the Tenth Circuit, in a concealed weapon decision less than a week old as of this writing, ruled that the carrying of concealed weapons is not protected by the Second Amendment. Peterson v. Martinez, No.  11-1149 (10th Cir. 2-22-13). See also Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, 701 F.3d 81 (2nd Cir. 2012), which upheld a New York statute that required an applicant for a permit to carry a concealed handgun in public to show “proper cause,” such as a need for self-defense greater than that of the general public.

The question whether the Second Amendment applies outside the home may therefore be taken up by the Court in the coming 2013 or 2014 Term.

Comment: An Analogy to Roe v. Wade

In addition to the practical importance of getting answers to these questions, I think it will be fascinating from a jurisprudential and historical perspective to see how the Court goes about articulating the scope of the Second Amendment post-Heller. While not everyone will appreciate the analogy, Heller reminds me of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), another controversial decision where the Court ruled for the first time that a women has a substantive due process right to terminate her pregnancy, a right that some believe the Court “made up.” In the years following Roe, the Court spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to articulate the scope of this right. Indeed, Roe remains a doctrinal battlefield forty years later.

It remains to be seen how much time and energy the Court (and dedicated organizations and litigants) will have to devote to the Second Amendment in order to set out its scope adequately.

Written by snahmod

February 28, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Constitutional Law

%d bloggers like this: