In March, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens called for repealing the Second Amendment, implicitly admitting that it does what, in his dissent in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), he pretended it does not: prohibit laws infringing the right to keep and bear arms.
Why Stevens called for repeal and dissented in Heller is a mystery, however. The Second Amendment was repealed, in effect, by Heller’s majority opinion. The opinion went beyond questions raised in the case and laid out a rationale by which Congress, states, and courts could ban the private possession of many offensive and defensive arms today and all such arms of the future.
Heller asked the court to decide whether Washington DC’s bans on handguns, having a loaded firearm at home, and carrying a firearm at home without a permit violated the Second Amendment. Although on imperfect grounds, the court correctly ruled that the first two bans were unconstitutional. It also said if DC required a permit to carry a gun at home, it had to issue permits to qualified applicants. But, the court added, “[w]e may as well consider at this point . . . what types of weapons [the Court’s decision in U.S. v. Miller (1939)] permits.”
The Court Turned Stare Decisis On Its Head
Miller asked whether the National Firearms Act of 1934 violated the Second Amendment by requiring that a short-barreled shotgun be registered with the federal government. Oddly, before the court heard the case, one defendant died and the other disappeared, so their lawyer didn’t go to Washington to present evidence on their behalf.
The court thus concluded, “[i]n the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession and use of a [short-barreled shotgun] at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense” (emphasis added).
For the right to “ordinary military equipment” and other arms that “could contribute to the common defense,” the court cited the decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Aymette v. State (1840), that “the arms, the right to keep which is secured [by Tennessee’s constitution] are such as are usually employed in civilized warfare, and that constitute the ordinary military equipment. If the citizens have these arms in their hands, they are prepared in the best possible manner to repel any encroachments upon their rights by those in authority.”
Heller said, “We think that Miller’s ‘ordinary military equipment’ language must be read in tandem with what comes after: ‘[O]rdinarily when called for [militia] service [able-bodied] men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.’”
However, that mischaracterizes Miller. The arms to which Miller said people have the right are those that have a “relationship to a well regulated militia.” “Ordinary military equipment” is the first example of arms the court said have that relationship, and “what comes after” is a second example: other arms that “could contribute to the common defense.” It was three paragraphs later that the court stated the obvious: people commonly possessed “common” arms.
Moreover, Heller didn’t read Miller “in tandem.” It gave weight only to Miller’s comment about “common” arms, while rejecting Miller’s and Aymette’s endorsement of the right to arms relating to militia purposes, “ordinary military equipment,” and other arms that “could contribute to the common defense.”
Why ‘Common’ Can’t Be the Standard for Owning Arms
Heller’s mischaracterization of Miller is the first reason why “common” cannot be the standard for arms to which people have the right. “Common” is also vulnerable to deliberate misinterpretation. For example, while the percentage of gun owners who own an AR-15 is about the same as the percentage of drivers who own a Mercedes, judges who oppose the right to arms would likely rule that only Mercedeses are “common.”
A second reason “common” cannot be the standard was noted by Justice Stephen Breyer in his dissent in Heller. He explained, “[T]he majority determines what regulations are permissible by looking to see what existing regulations permit. There is no basis for believing that the Framers intended such circular reasoning.”
Breyer had in mind the majority’s argument that fully automatic rifles, common in the military, could be banned because they aren’t common among private individuals. The circularity is that they aren’t common among private individuals because they have been prohibitively taxed since 1934, banned in about half the states for almost as long, prohibited from importation since 1968, and banned from domestic manufacture since 1986.
A third reason is that the U.S. Framers didn’t limit the right to “common” arms. For example, cannons, though not as common as handheld arms, weren’t excluded from the Second Amendment. In protecting the right to arms for defense against tyranny, the Framers intended for the people to win. Several quotations from them illustrate the point.
James Madison: “Let a regular army . . . be at the devotion of the federal government. . . . [T]he State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger.”
Alexander Hamilton: “[The] army cannot be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.”
Richard Henry Lee: “To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms.”
Tench Coxe: “As the military . . . might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the [Second Amendment] in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
Noah Webster: “[T]he whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.”
You Can’t Protect Freedom With a Slingshot
A fourth, and the most important, reason was pointed out, but rejected by Heller’s majority opinion, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an originalist from whom we might have expected faithfulness to the Framers’ intent. Referring to fully-automatic rifles, Scalia wrote:
It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service . . . may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the [amendment’s] prefatory clause. . . . But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
Although some laud Heller for recognizing an individual right to some arms, its false standard allows Congress and the states to ban arms they and the courts claim are not “common” or that are useful “in military service.” As Breyer put it, “On the majority’s reasoning, if tomorrow someone invents a particularly useful, highly dangerous self-defense weapon, Congress and the States had better ban it immediately, for once it becomes popular Congress will no longer possess the authority to do so.”
Breyer was mocking his colleagues, but “tomorrow” is important because firearms are near the end of their 500-year era of usefulness for the military purpose the Framers intended. Notwithstanding gun-control supporters’ complaints about the supposed new-fangledness of this or that firearm or firearm accessory, firearms are glorified slingshots.
Three thousand years ago, David slew Goliath with a rock ballistically comparable to a .45 caliber pistol bullet. Gunpowder propels a bullet more predictably than a whirling leather thong, but bullets, like rocks, are inert projectiles.
Sometime this century, the government will be equipped with offensive and defensive handheld arms and even more futuristic arms that will render firearms as obsolete for defense against tyranny as bows and arrows are today. While our troops should be equipped with the best equipment possible when fighting America’s enemies, it requires little imagination to envision how extraordinary technologies, such as those developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could be misused against the American people.
Of course, regardless of Heller and whether the Second Amendment is repealed, Americans have the right to keep and bear arms, including for defense against tyranny. As a wiser Supreme Court recognized in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), the right, which existed before the Constitution, is “not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.”
But rights are a concept. Laws that are enforced have tangible effect. In early April, U.S. District Court judge William Young ruled that Heller’s endorsement of restrictions on fully automatic firearms permits Massachusetts to ban semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines that many firearms use. Other courts have upheld similar bans.
If Americans allow their rights to be choked in this manner, they could find themselves no longer in control of government, but rather at its mercy.