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Constitution Is Big Winner in D.C. Gun Case

The spirit of liberty that animates the Second Amendment has survived today's narrow decision in D.C. v. Heller.

by
Dave Kopel

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June 26, 2008 - 11:00 am
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The Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Second Amendment, and striking down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban and the ban on the use of any firearm for self-defense in the home, is solidly reasoned. Although the case leaves ample room for moderate gun control laws, the case casts doubt on the continuing validity of a variety of other gun prohibitions.

Justice Scalia, who has long shown an interest in firearms law and policy, wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito. A dissent written by Justice Stevens, and joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer argued that the Second Amendment protects only an individual right of vanishingly small proportions — the right of a militiaman not to be disarmed by the federal government when he is on active militia duty. Justice Breyer wrote a separate dissent, joined by the other three dissenters, arguing that even if the Second Amendment protects all law-abiding citizens, the handgun ban should be upheld because it is reasonable.

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion was impressively well-informed by the scholarly debate over the Second Amendment that has been going for the past several decades. The textual analysis is meticulous, supplemented by careful attention to the many early American and English sources which elucidate the meaning of the various words.

Justice Stevens’ effort to read the Second Amendment as militia-only requires too many implausible inferences. For example, it is true that the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms” were often used to refer to arms possession and use in military bodies such as the militia. But as Justice Scalia points out, there are also many examples of both phrases being used to refer to owning and carrying guns for other purposes, such as self-defense and hunting.

After analyzing the text of the Second Amendment, the majority opinion then detailed the interpretation of the Second Amendment in the first half of the 19th century, showing that every legal scholar (except for one minor exception), along with state and federal courts, recognized the Second Amendment as an individual right to have guns for various purposes, including self-defense.

As Scalia explained, after the Civil War, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and then the Fourteenth Amendment — all with the explicit purpose of stopping southern governments from interfering with the Second Amendment rights of former slaves to own firearms to protect their homes and families. All the scholarly commentators of the late 19th century — including the legal giants Thomas Cooley and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. — recognized the Second Amendment as an individual right.

Previous Supreme Court precedents have not — contrary to the vehement insistence of gun prohibition advocates — adopted a contrary interpretation, the majority said. United States v. Cruikshank (1876) described the right to arms as a preexisting natural right which was protected — but not created — by the Second Amendment.

The 1939 case of United States v. Miller, which held that a tax and registration requirement for sawed-off shotguns was not facially unconstitutional, is heavily relied on by the dissent. But the majority points out that Miller‘s analysis of the history of the Second Amendment was cursory; Miller did not even submit a brief, and, as explicated in a law review article cited by Scalia, the Miller case appears to have been a collusive case involving a corrupted defense attorney doing the bidding of the prosecutor. Most importantly, the Miler opinion turned on whether the particular type of gun was protected by the Second Amendment, and did not declare that only militiamen had a right to arms.

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