The Right to Bear… Um…

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans and covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, struck down a Texas statute that criminalized the promotion and sale of sex toys. The Fifth Circuit — where I clerked my first year out of law school — thus became the first and only jurisdiction in the country to recognize the individual right to bear both arms (in the 2001 case of U.S. v. Emerson) and dildoes. (Yes, the statute actually uses the word “dildo” as an example of a prohibited ”obscene device,” which is otherwise defined as a device “designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”)

The Fifth Circuit’s analysis correctly rests on the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, which found that Texas’s anti-homosexual sodomy statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment right to engage in private intimate conduct free from government intrusion. Put simply, there is no state interest compelling enough to overcome the individual right to freedom in the bedroom.

Besides Texas, only three states have a similar obscene devices statute: Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia. The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld its state’s statute, while neither the Alabama nor Virginia Supreme Courts have entertained such challenges. The legislatures of Louisiana, Kansas, and Colorado had also enacted obscene-device bans, but the laws did not survive review by their respective state supreme courts.

The Eleventh Circuit (covering Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), however, just last year rejected a similar Fourteenth Amendment challenge to the Alabama statute. While the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, the Fifth Circuit’s decision now squarely opens up a “circuit split,” which means the issue is ripe for the Court to take up next term. 

The Court has not wanted to touch sex toys cases with, um, a 10-foot pole. But it now has the opportunity to enforce this particular individual right in the same year it (fingers crossed) throws out the D.C. gun ban.