second amendment

Repeal the Second Amendment?

The NRA cites this pronouncement by the Brady Center’s co-founder, Pete Shields:  “The first problem is to slow down the number of handguns being … sold….  The second problem is to get handguns registered.  The final problem is to make possession … totally illegal.”  There’s the proof, says the NRA, that liberals just want to get rid of our guns and kill the Second Amendment.

Maryland School Shooting Complicates the School Safety Movement

This week, a seventeen-year-old student at Great Mills High School in Maryland brought a Glock 17 handgun to the school and wounded two students before being stopped by Blaine Gaskill, the school resource officer. The event came weeks after the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Florida, which set off a deluge of public outcry for “school safety” reform. The problem, though, is that nobody can agree on what “school safety” reform is. Before this week, activists have been pushing for stricter gun control, while others pushed various measures to enhance school security.

School shootings are a very unique and complicated problem, further frustrating the likelihood of any coherence coming out of this outcry. They are, in fact, very rare, and generally planned far ahead of time. This makes it difficult for any gun-control law to affect a school shooter. In general, gun-control laws tend to dissuade criminals on the margins–the guy who is vacillating about whether to kill his wife but who may decide to do it if given a gun. School shooters are not that type of criminal. Moreover, Maryland has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. In addition to existing federal law—including the federal prohibition on handgun transfers to persons under 21—Maryland’s gun laws include:

  • A comprehensive “assault weapon” and “large capacity magazine” ban.
  • A universal 10-round magazine limit.
  • Background check requirement for all handgun transfers.
  • An exhaustive application process as a prerequisite to being permitted to purchase a handgun.
  • Mandatory registration of all handguns, and mandatory licensing of all handgun owners.
  • Prohibition on purchasing more than one firearm per month.
  • A seven-day waiting period for all handgun and “assault weapon” transfers.

In spite of all those laws, the shooter, who could not legally own the handgun under Maryland law (it was his father’s), still shot two innocent students. When laws are being demanded to ensure school shootings never happen again, we must always ask whether a new law would have actually prevented the harm. The paradigm school shooting in the United States, Columbine, happened during the federal assault weapon ban, using compliant weapons.

Supreme Court Continues Its Gun-Shy Ways

Over a decade ago, James Hamilton was convicted of a felony in Virginia, for which he served no jail time. Since then, the state of Virginia has restored all of his civil rights, including the right to possess firearms. In the years since then, Hamilton has worked as an armed guard, firearms instructor, and protective officer for the Department of Homeland Security. Despite never exhibiting any violent tendencies and leading a stable family, the state of Maryland, where Hamilton now resides, forbids him from possessing firearms because of that decade-old Virginia conviction.

Hamilton challenged Maryland’s absolute prohibition on the possession of firearms by felons as applied to him, arguing that, while there may be reasons for forbidding some felons from owning firearms, the prohibition made no sense when applied to him, a person who committed a non-violent felony over a decade ago. The Fourth Circuit, however, decided that Hamilton was not eligible to bring an as-applied challenge to Maryland’s law, leaving states in the Fourth Circuit wide latitude to abuse the constitutional rights of a huge class of citizens and leaving those citizens with no way to vindicate their rights.

President Obama’s Gun Controls Didn’t Make Kalamazoo Shooting More Difficult

Last week, a man in Kalamazoo, Michigan went on a shooting rampage, killing six people seemingly at random.

The suspected shooter is a man named Jason Dalton, who reportedly owns several firearms.  Up until this point, Dalton had no criminal record and has apparently never been adjudicated mentally ill.  In legal terms, this means that Dalton would have had no problem passing a background check to purchase his firearms.

Despite this fact, President Obama took time this week to suggest that his gun control measures make it more difficult for would-be spree shooters to acquire firearms.

Speaking to the National Governor’s Association, President Obama claimed:

As many of you read, six people were gunned down in a rampage in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Before I joined all of you, I called the mayor, the sheriff, and the police chief there, and told them that they would have whatever federal support they needed in their investigation.  Their local officials and first responders, by the way, did an outstanding job in apprehending the individual very quickly.  But you got families who are shattered today.

Earlier this year, I took some steps that will make it harder for dangerous people, like this individual, to buy a gun.  

Supreme Court Wasn’t Serious about the Second Amendment

While the media attention will focus on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway – the legislative-prayer case – the more interesting (and consequential) decision issued today was the Court’s denial of review in Drake v. Jerejian, the Second Amendment case I previously discussed here. In Drake, the lower federal courts upheld an outrageous New Jersey law that denies the right to bear arms outside the home for self-defense – just like the D.C. law at issue in District of Columbia v. Heller denied the right to keep arms inside the home – and today the Supreme Court let them get away with it.

Drake is but the latest in a series of cases that challenge the most restrictive state laws regarding the right to armed self-defense. Although the Supreme Court in Heller declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual constitutional right, lower federal courts with jurisdiction over states like Maryland and New York have been “willfully confused” about the scope of that right, declining to protect it outside Heller’s particular facts (a complete ban on functional firearms in the home). It’s as if the Supreme Court announced that the First Amendment protects an individual right to blog about politics from your home computer, but then some lower courts allowed states to ban political blogging from your local Starbucks.

Yet each time, the Supreme Court has denied review.

Time for the Supreme Court to Explain the Scope of the Second Amendment

From the 1939 case of United States v. Miller until 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court left unclear what right the Second Amendment protects. For nearly 70 years, the lower courts were forced to make do with Miller’s vague guidance, which in many jurisdictions resulted in a cramped and limited right to keep and bear arms, erroneously restricted to militia service. While Heller did eventually clarify that the Second Amendment secures an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, the ruling left many questions about the scope of that right unanswered (and 2010’s McDonald v. City of Chicago merely extended the right to people living in the states, without further defining it).

Since then, several courts have made clear that they plan to take only as much from Heller as they explicitly have to. One of these is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which last year in Drake v. Filko upheld New Jersey’s “may-issue” handgun law, which says that an individual may be granted a carry license—read: may be permitted to exercise her Second Amendment rights—only if she proves an urgent need to do so to the satisfaction of a law enforcement officer. In order to show this need, one must prove, with documentation, that there are specific, immediate threats to one’s safety that cannot be avoided in any way other than through possession of a handgun. If an individual can actually persuade the local official—who has total discretion to accept or deny the claim—then she gets a license for two years, at which time the gun owner must repeat the entire discretionary process (proving an imminent threat, etc.) to renew the permit.

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Four years is too long to wait for a ruling on a constitutional claim. Not for the ultimate vindication of a right that’s been summarily denied, mind you, but a mere ruling in a case asserting this right that has long ago been briefed and argued.

That’s the situation faced by my colleague Tom Palmer and his fellow plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the District of Columbia’s complete ban on carrying guns for self-defense outside the home. Palmer v. District of Columbia was one of many suits filed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. (Recall that two years ago the Seventh Circuit struck down a similar ban in Chicago, the only other place in the country where there is no legal way to exercise the right to carry – forget places like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, where it’s possible in theory even if local law enforcement can, and always do, deny requests in practice.)

This case has now been pending for more than four years without a resolution of cross-motions for summary judgment – both parties agreed that the case can be decided by the judge on the law, without fact-finding or a trial. The docket (see pages 37-42 of this document) is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen for a federal case: Palmer was filed in August 2009 and a hearing was held in January 2010, at which point Judge Henry Kennedy took the case under advisement. In July 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts (!) reassigned the case from Judge Kennedy to Judge Frederick J. Scullin, Jr. of the Northern District of New York. (In other words, Judge Kennedy sat on the case for 18 months and then retired.) There was a status conference soon after, then a motion hearing scheduled for August 2012 (more than a year later), which was rescheduled for October 2012, after which Judge Scullin took the case under advisement, and then… nothing. Plaintiffs’ counsel Alan Gura (my friend and sometime co-author) filed a motion to expedite in August 2013, and then a petition for a writ of mandamus – a request that a higher court command a government official to do something – with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in October 2013.

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