Chemerinsky on Parker v. District of Columbia

On March 14, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Duke law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. I sent the following letter to the editor in response:

Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky claims [“A Well-Regulated Right to Bear Arms,” March 14] that the federal court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit “interpreted the Second Amendment as bestowing on individuals a right to have guns,” and as “creating a right for individuals to have firearms.” Yet the court took great pains to explain that the amendment neither creates nor bestows the right to keep and bear arms. According to the court, “The wording of the [amendment] indicates that the right to keep and bear arms was not created by government, but rather preserved by it,” and that it is “a right that pre-existed the Constitution like ‘the freedom of speech’” [emphasis in original].

The fact that both Prof. Chemerinsky and the Post’s editorial page (which had previously criticized the court’s opinion) missed that laboriously made distinction suggests that they might have read the opinion more closely before criticizing it.

Prof. Chemerinsky also claims that even if courts conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, the D.C. gun ban should nevertheless stand. He argues that the Supreme Court should not apply “strict scrutiny” to laws that curtail the right to keep and bear arms because he sees no reason to distrust legislatures in this area. Instead, he argues that the courts should apply the less rigorous rational basis test to such laws, which they have applied to laws restricting the constitutionally protected right to property. Chemerinsky concludes that the D.C. gun ban should be upheld as being “rationally related to achieving [the] legitimate government purpose” of reducing gun violence.

I see serious problems with Chemerinsky’s case. First, the Constitution gives no indication that some of the rights it secures should receive less protection than others. Second, even if one were to accept that premise, the right to self-defense is leaps and bounds more important than the right to property or the right not to be discriminated against by the government on the basis of race. Even if we accept that some constitutional rights are more equal than others, then by Chemerinsky’s rationale the courts should apply strict scrutiny because there is ample reason to doubt any legislative act that infringes on so important a right. Third, as my colleague Bob Levy points out, “In Carolene Products, economic and property rights are relegated to second-tier status, but the rights expressly secured by the Bill of Rights – like the right to keep and bear arms – get top billing. So Chemerinsky’s suggestion that rational basis applies is at odds with Carolene.”

Finally, the D.C. gun ban should not survive even the rational basis test. To do so, it would have to be shown that an effective prohibition on the use of firearms for self-defense is a reasonable restriction on the right to keep and bear arms. Such a severe law is not reasonable, because it leaves peaceful citizens defenseless against violent criminals. And neither is it a mere restriction of the right to keep and bear arms; it is outright repeal. If the rational basis test can be used to uphold the repeal of a constitutionally protected right, then neither that test nor the Bill of Rights have any meaning. Chemerinsky’s logic would allow the District to abolish private property so long as it had a “rational basis” for doing so.