Yes, California, There Is an Individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, at least in the home for self-defense.  Here’s our own Bob Levy, who masterminded the Heller litigation, talking about that decision:

While the Court’s ruling was a watershed in constitutional interpretation, it technically applied only to D.C., striking down the District’s draconian gun ban but not having a direct effect in the rest of the country.

Well, today the Ninth Circuit (the federal appellate court covering most Western states) ruled that the Second Amendment restricts the power of state and local governments to interfere with individual right to have guns for personal use.  That is, the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporates” the Second Amendment against the states, as the Supreme Court has found it to do for most of the Bill of Rights.  I rarely get a chance to say this, but the Ninth Circuit gets it exactly right.

Here’s the key part of Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain’s opinion:

We therefore conclude that the right to keep and bear arms is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”  Colonial revolutionaries, the Founders, and a host of commentators and lawmakers living during the first one hundred years of the Republic all insisted on the fundamental nature of the right. It has long been regarded as the “true palladium of liberty.” Colonists relied on it to assert and to win their independence, and the victorious Union sought to prevent a recalcitrant South from abridging it less than a century later.  The crucial role this deeply rooted right has played in our birth and history compels us to recognize that it is indeed fundamental, that it is necessary to the Anglo-American conception of ordered liberty that we have inherited.  We are therefore persuaded that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment and applies it against the states and local governments.

In short, residents of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington now join D.C. residents in having their Second Amendment rights protected.  And courts covering other parts of the country – most immediately the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago – will have their chance to make the same interpretation in due course.

Just as interesting – and potentially equally significant – is the footnote Judge O’Scannlain drops at the end of the above text in response to arguments that the right to keep and bear arms, regardless of its provenance as a fundamental natural right, is now controversial:

But we do not measure the protection the Constitution affords a right by the values of our own times. If contemporary desuetude sufficed to read rights out of the Constitution, then there would be little benefit to a written statement of them.   Some may disagree with the decision of the Founders to enshrine a given right in the Constitution.  If so, then the people can amend the document.  But such amendments are not for the courts to ordain.

Quite right.