The Supreme Court’s recent decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. ___ (2008), holding that the Second Amendment protects a limited individual right to possess a firearm–unconnected with service in a militia–does not alter our conclusion. Under Heller, individuals still do not have the right to possess machineguns or short-barreled rifles, as Gilbert did, and convicted felons, such as Gilbert, do not have the right to possess any firearms. Id., Slip. Op. at 27.
Since the Supreme Court decided the Heller case there has been much speculation regarding the scope of the ruling. Would this open the flood gates to unrestricted ownership of handguns and permit the ownership other types of weapons, like assault rifles. The Ninth Circuit opinion says that it does not.
The facts in Gilbert are straight forward. Gilbert was charged with ten counts involving owning a machine gun, owning unregistered firearms, and being a felon in possesion of a firearm. He said he knowingly bought some of the weapons from undercover agents because he wants to challenge the Constitutionality of the gun laws. At the end of the trial the jury was given the following instruction,
A person does not have the right under the Second Amendment, or under any other provision of the Constitution, to possess a machinegun. A person does not have a right, under the Second Amendment, or under any other provision of the Constitution, to possess a rifle with a barrel shorter than 16 inches that the person has not registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record.
Gilbert appealed his conviction arguing that the jury instruction violated his Second Amendment rights.
The Ninth Circuit did not buy his argument and, as noted above, said that the Supreme Court's Heller decision articulates a limited individual right to possess a firearm that does not extend to machine guns, short barreled rifles, or to the ownership of weapons by felons.
Unfortunately, the Gilbert opinion is very short and does not include an explanation of why the court read the Heller decision in this limited way. But, beyond the limitations of the ruling itself, there is ample language in the Heller case to support this reading of the decision.
Like any case, the Supreme Court's Heller decision itself was limited to the facts of the case, which was the ownership of a handgun by a non-felon, who had not been judged mentally incompetent. However, there was much discussion in the dicta of the opinion where the majority not only says this is a limited right but also discusses areas where government regulation would not conflict with the Second Amendment.
Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote discussing the limitations in the Heller opinion.
Much will be written on the subject as we have a chance to digest the language of the opinion. But these statements from the majority opinion should allay fears that the doors have been opened to unrestricted gun ownership.
At the outset, the Court says that it's longstanding opinion in United States v Miller is still valid but clarifies the scope of that decision.We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.
The court is protecting weapons held by law abiding people for lawful purposes. Self-defense is the lawful purpose the court is upholding. The court also limits the protection to the types of weapons that a militia man would have in his home at the time of the founding.We also recognize another important limitation on the
right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have
explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those
“in common use at the time.”
That does not mean the Court is sanctioning the types of weapons a soldier would use today.It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful
in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be
banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely
detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said,
the conception of the militia at the time of the Second
Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens
capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of
lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia
duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as
effective as militias in the 18th century, would require
sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at
large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small
arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and
tanks. But the fact that modern developments have lim-
ited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the
protected right cannot change our interpretation of the
The decision goes on to make clear that the Amendment does not prohibit the who, what, where and why of weapons regulation.Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.
For instance, it doesn't guarantee the right to carry concealed weapons.For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues.
Also the government can regulate who owns weapons and where they may be carried.nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms
It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court ultimately refines the limits of the Heller decision. But the lower courts seem to be reading it narrowly and following the limitations that are suggested in the ruling. And lest anyone think this limited approach has only appeared in the so-called "liberal" Ninth Circuit, District Court decisions in Missouri, Johnson v U.S., and Louisiana, U.S. v Dorosan, have reached the same conclusion.
What does all of this mean for Obama and other Democrats in the upcoming election? The Supreme Court has taken off the table one of the most divisive issues that has bedeviled Democrats in many decades of elections. For decades, the NRA has used the "right to bear arms" as a major fund raising tool and rallying cry. They have been able to successfully attack sensible gun control legislation by using the absolutist argument that Democrats want to totally disarm all Americans. They will not be able to do so any longer.
The Supreme Court has decided there is an individual right to own handguns. That decision, right or wrong, will be with us for a long time. Moving forward, states and cities cannot enact laws that impose a complete ban on handgun ownership. Beyond that, however, a conservative majority of the Court, in an opinion written by Scalia, has signaled its willingness to accept most forms of gun regulation currently on the books, and the lower courts are already adopting that position.
Scalia, the darling of the NRA, has said that guns can be regulated. The Second Amendment right to own a gun does not extend any person, regardless of their background, it does not mean that any type of gun can be owned, and it does not mean a person can take a gun anywhere they wish.
The NRA won its Second Amendment battle but it will prove to be a pyrrhic victory. A powerful fundraising and campaign tool has been taken away from them. They can no longer threaten that guns will be taken away from law abiding citizens if Democrats are elected. That issue has been decided. The issue left on the table is whether we can have reasonable gun control legislation designed to protect the health, safety and welfare of our communities. As the NRA finds itself defending gun ownership by felons, possession of automatic weapons, tanks and grenade launchers, and the carrying of weapons near schools it will find itself increasingly associated with the most lunatic fringe of the movement with no Scalia or Second Amendment to fall back on.
From this point on the discussion will shift to the reasonableness of specific types of gun control. Those are arguments that progressives can win. But we still need to elect Obama and a strongly Democratic Senate to ensure that the courts continue to interpret Heller in a limited manner.
(I do recognize that Heller only applies to Federal jurisdictions and the Court has yet to rule on Second Amendment incorporation, which would make it applicable to the states. We have not had an incorporation case in a long time so that should prove interesting. While there are some peculiarities to the Second, in the end I'd be surprised if it is not made applicable to the states.)
Crossposted from docudharma