Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court Issues Ruling on 2nd Amendment

The United States Supreme Court has just issued their opinion in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. In the case, the District of Columbia’s prohibition against the possession of firearms and requiring that shotguns and rifles be kept disassembled under trigger lock was challenged. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Scalia found that the 2nd Amendment does protect an individual’s rights to possess arms.

For many, the 2nd Amendment’s application to individuals, rather than militia, has been a subject of debate over the intentions of the language. However, with today’s decision, the Supreme Court explicitly held that the right extends to all, not just soldiers. Quoting from the Court’s Syllabus:

“The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

In analyzing the history of the 2nd Amendment, the majority concludes that the intent of the Amendment was to codify pre-existing rights. The majority uses history and the inclusion of the language “shall not be infringed” as evidence of the understanding of this pre-existing right and how this right was intended to be affected. Finally, the majority sets forth that the debate over whether to keep and bear arms was not over the right’s desirability, but over whether such language even needed to be codified.

In his dissent, Justice Stevens (joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) does not argue that the 2nd Amendment confers an individual right; his concern is more focused on what the scope of this right is. He contends that the right to keep and bear arms by individuals is unquestioned, but this right does not necessarily confer a right to possession of firearms for uses such as hunting. Justice Stevens argues that the government has the power to limit the scope of the 2nd Amendment’s applicability, an issue which the majority opinion failed to address in reducing this power. Finally, he argues for respecting precedent, quoting Justice Cardozo:

“[The] labor of judges would be increased almost to the breaking point if every past decision could be reopened in every case, and one could not lay one’s own course of bricks on the secure foundation of the courses laid by others who had gone before him.”

In Justice Breyer’s dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg), he argues that the scope of the 2nd Amendment was intended to be for militia-related, not self-defense related, purposes. Also, Justice Breyer seems to set forth a similar argument as Justice Stevens in stating that the government has the power to regulate in the interests of the citizens, as long as any limitation of the Amendment is reasonable and appropriate.

Even with the Court dividing 5-4 on the decision, the effect of the ruling seems rather clear – the 2nd Amendment provides the right to possess firearms to individuals. By stating this explicitly, and not including any types of exceptions or qualifications to the holding, it would seem that states now have guidance as to their regulations of the ownership of guns.

Even with the explicitness however, it is almost certain that the debate will continue. It will not be surprising to see other jurisdictions attempt to enact legislation in an effort to challenge the ruling, perhaps by further tailoring their laws to be more narrow. However, as long as the current composition of the Court remains as it is, it appears as if this will remain the interpretation of the Amendment.

For more analysis from ScotusBlog, click here.

No comments: