Supreme Court Grants Cert in Second Amendment Case:
This was expected
, but is still big news. The reformulated Question Presented is pretty specific:
"Whether the following provisions — D.C. Code secs. 7-2502.02(a)(4), 22-4504(a), and 7-2507.02 — violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes?"
Sources on the Second Amendment:
Since the Second Amendment is even more in the news today than usual, I thought I'd repost a link to my Sources on the Second Amendment, a Web page that includes:
The text of related contemporaneous right-to-bear-arms provisions
Calls for the right to keep and bear arms from state ratification conventions
"The right of the people" in other Bill of Rights provisions
Some other contemporaneous constitutional provisions with a similar two-clause structure
Leading 18th- and 19th-century commentary on the right to bear arms
Excerpts from Supreme Court cases that mention the right
Relevant statutes, such as the Militia Act of 1792 and the currently effective Militia Act
Here also are my latest and best-formatted lists of state constitutional rights to keep and bear arms, current and past, sorted by state and by date, and categorized by type.
Finally, here's my testimony on the Second Amendment to the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution -- it's a bit date, since it doesn't include my research on the phrase "free state," but it should still be a helpful articulation of my views.
Justice Kennedy and the Second Amendment:
What is Justice Kennedy likely to do in the Second Amendment case the Court has granted?
As a general rule, Justice Kennedy tends to construe the Bill of Rights so its protections apply broadly but often yield to competing interests. If the question is whether a constitutional protection applies in an abstract sense to a new set of facts, Justice Kennedy is often inclined to answer that question in the affirmative. On the other hand, Kennedy often finds that the right gives way to competing governmenet interests such as law enforcement needs, security, finality, etc. (These are obviously enormous oversimplifications, but I think it's a pretty good first cut.)
What does that mean for the Second Amendment case? Well, I looked into my SCOTUS 330CLe Model Crystal Ball (patent pending, with optional GPS system), and it's predicting that Justice Kennedy will conclude that the Second Amendment does in fact create an individual right. It also tells me that Kennedy will endorse a relatively deferential standard of review that will end up allowing a great deal of gun regulation.
UPDATE: I have edited the post a bit for style.
"Necessary to the Security of a Free State":
Apropos today's Supreme Court decision to hear the D.C. Second Amendment case, I thought I'd post the final version of my "Necessary to the Security of a Free State," 83 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1 (2007), which is forthcoming in a week or two. Here's the Introduction (materially changed from the earlier version I posted some months ago):
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," the Second Amendment says, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." But what did the Framing generation understand "free State" to mean?
Some say it meant a "state of the union, free from federal oppression." As one D.C. Circuit judge put it [dissenting in the case that the Court has just agreed to hear -EV], "The Amendment was drafted in response to the perceived threat to the 'free[dom]' of the 'State[s]' posed by a national standing army controlled by the federal government." Or as a lawyer for one leading pro-gun-control group wrote, "Presumably, the term 'free State' is a reference to the states as entities of governmental authority. Moreover, the reference to the 'security' of a free State must have something to do with the need to defend the state as an entity of government."
This reading would tend to support the states' rights view, and is probably among the strongest intuitive foundations for the view—after all, "State" appears right there in the text, seemingly referring to each state's needs and interests. The reading would suggest the right might cover only those whom each state explicitly chose as its defensive force, perhaps a state-selected National Guard. And it would suggest the Amendment doesn't apply outside states, for instance in the District of Columbia: "'the District of Columbia is not a state within the meaning of the Second Amendment and therefore the Second Amendment's reach does not extend to it'" [citing the D.C. Circuit dissent].
But if "free State" was understood to mean "free country, free of despotism," that would tend to support the individual rights view of the Amendment. "[T]he right of the people" would then more easily be read as referring to a right of the people as free individuals, even if a right justified partly by public interests, much as "the right of the people" is understood in the First and Fourth Amendments. The right would cover people regardless of whether they were selected for a state-chosen defensive force, since the right would not be focused on preserving the states' independence. And it would apply to all Americans, in states or in D.C. [citing the D.C. Circuit majority].
We see a similar controversy about the change from James Madison's original proposal, which spoke of "security of a free country," to the final "security of a free State." Some assume the change was a deliberate substantive shift towards a states' rights provision, and point in support to the Constitution's general use of "state" to mean state of the union (except where "foreign State" is used to mean "foreign country"). Others assume the change was purely stylistic, and thus did not reflect a shift to a states' rights view; they sometimes point for evidence to the absence of recorded controversy about the change.
This Article makes a simple claim: there's no need to assume. There is ample evidence about the original meaning of the term "free state." "Free state" was used often in Framing-era and pre-Framing writings, especially those writings that are known to have influenced the Framers: Blackstone's Commentaries, Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, Hume's essays, Trenchard and Gordon's Cato's Letters, and works by over half the authors on Donald Lutz's list of thirty-six authors most cited by American political writers from 1760 to 1805. It was also used by many leading American writers, including John Adams in 1787, James Madison in 1785 and the Continental Congress in 1774.
Those sources, which surprisingly have not been canvassed by the Second Amendment literature, give us a clear sense of what the phrase "free state" meant at the time. In eighteenth-century political discourse, "free state" was a commonly used political term of art, meaning "free country," which is to say the opposite of a despotism.
Political theory of the era often divided the world into despotisms and free states (either republics or constitutional monarchies). Free states had certain properties as a result of their being free, and were susceptible to certain threats of reverting to despotism. To remain a free state, the free state had to take these threats into account, and to structure its institutions in a particular way.
"State" simply meant country; and "free" almost always meant free from despotism, rather than from some other country, and never from some larger entity in a federal structure. That is how the phrase was used in the sources that the Framers read. And there is no reason to think that the Framers departed from this well-established meaning, and used the phrase to mean something different from what it meant to Blackstone, Montesquieu, the Continental Congress, Madison, Adams, or others.
Even given this finding, of course, many important arguments about the Second Amendment remain. But when we consider those arguments, we should recognize that the phrase "a free State" was not understood as having to do with states' rights as such. Rather, it referred to preserving the liberty of the new country that the Constitution was establishing.
The Second Amendment and the Living Constitution:
Today also seemed like a good day to reprint my 2002 item on the Second Amendment and the living Constitution:
[Some ask]: Shouldn't courts read the Second Amendment as part of an evolving Constitution? Say the Ninth Circuit was wrong, last year's Emerson decision from the Fifth Circuit was right, and the Framers thought of the Amendment as securing an individual right. Shouldn't judges update it due to the passage of time, based on evolving standards of justice and practicality?
1. Well, here's one way to justify this position: The Second Amendment as written was meant to apply only to the federal government, and can only apply to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, when we consider what the Second Amendment means with regard to state laws, we shouldn't look at what people in 1791 thought of the right-to-bear arms — we should look at what people in 1868 thought the Fourteenth Amendment would do as to the right-to-bear arms.
If we do that, we see that while in 1791 the Framers did think of the right as largely aimed at societal self-defense, including defense against government tyranny — albeit self-defense that would be assured through individual gun ownership — in 1868, people saw the right as also focused on private arms ownership aimed at protection against crime. The Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1866 (surely not intended by Congress to preserve states' powers to maintain their own armed military forces) provided that
in every State or district where the ordinary course of judicial proceedings has been interrupted by the rebellion ... the right to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to have full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal, including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens of such State or district without respect to race or color, or previous condition of slavery [emphasis added].
Likewise, debates over the Fourteenth Amendment repeatedly referred to the need to protect freedmen and Union sympathizers from attempts by state governments to disarm them, and thus leave them vulnerable to criminal attack. An updated Second Amendment is thus at least as much an individual right as the original one.
2. Here's another way, which I disagree with, but which some might urge: We should look at what the public today thinks about the Second Amendment. If we do this, we see that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the Second Amendment secures an individual right to-bear arms: For instance, in an abcnews.com poll from , 73 percent took that view, and 20 percent took the states' rights view.
Or perhaps the right question under this popular-sovereignty theory is whether the public thinks we should have the right to bear arms. The result would probably be similar: For instance, a Freedom Forum First Amendment Center poll [from 2002] found that 48% of respondents saw "the right to own firearms" as "essential," and another 31% saw it as "important."
3. Here's a third way to gauge evolving standards — look to how Americans see this right as reflected in state constitutions. These constitutions, after all, are formal expressions of the public's will, and not just polls. But they are much easier to change than the federal constitution, so they should better reflect evolving views.
If we consider this, we'll see that Bills of Rights in 44 of the 50 state constitutions secure a right-to-bear arms. Most of them are quite explicit in securing an individual right, but I think all of them have to be understood this way: A Bill of Rights in a state constitution surely can't secure a right of the state, or of a small group selected and controlled by the state; it secures a right against the state.
What's more, since 1970, 14 states all across the country have either added a right-to-bear arms provision to their state Bill of Rights, or strengthened an existing one. Here's the most recent one, enacted in Wisconsin in 1998 by a 74 percent-26 percent vote: "The people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose."
4. So under all these approaches, the right-to-bear arms should be read as forcefully today as in 1791 — or perhaps more so. What then do people mean when they say that "evolving standards" should lead courts to reject the individual rights view of the Second Amendment? Seems to me there's only one meaning: That judges should look not to the Framers, not to the 1868 Ratifiers, not to state constitutions, and not even to polls — but only to what they think is right, or perhaps to what the social class to which they belong (elite urban lawyers) thinks is right. You don't like a constitutional right, your honor? You don't think it makes sense today? No problem! Just evolve it out of existence.
"The very purpose of a Bill of Rights," Justice Jackson wrote in the 1943 flag-salute case, "was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." Words to live by, it seems to me.
The Second Amendment as Teaching Tool in Constitutional Law Classes:
The Supreme Court is about to fill in (whether rightly or wrongly) one of the last blank spots on the constitutional map. This means law professors are about to lose one of the few areas where they can get their students to discuss an exciting constitutional rights issue by talking about text, structure, history, and more, with a minimum of distraction from What The Justices Have Told Us. Most Constitutional Law courses are overwhelmingly (and understandably, though not always entirely fortunately) about the Supreme Court Reports, not about the Constitution as a document. Until now, the Second Amendment has offered a great opportunity for a different approach.
In light of this, I thought I'd link to "The Second Amendment as Teaching Tool in Constitutional Law Classes," an article that I put together in 1998 -- it's a joint piece, with sections from Bob Cottrol, Sandy Levinson, Scot Powe, pre-InstaPundit Glenn Harlan Reynolds, and me. I hope it will be of interest even to non-conlawprofs, but I especially hope that some constitutional law professors take our advice in this coming semester.