(Crossposted from American Constitution Society :: Columbia Law School)
The ACS/Federalist Society sponsored discussion/debate on DC v. Heller – the first SCOTUS case since 1939 to address the meaning of the Second Amendment – won't begin for another 2 hours, but I am prepared to upstage the speakers by offering a workable solution for Second Amendment jurisprudence in the 21st Century.
Although the language of this amendment provides infinite grist for the mill of constitutional interpretation, my solution focuses exclusively on one word: arms.
My proposal: The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms as such arms existed at the ratification.
Courts can't wish the Second Amendment away, but they can construe it in a manner that works in today's society.Arms in 1791
Let's look at arms – specifically, guns – as they existed at the time of the ratification.
Guns in 1791 WOULD
- ...be made by a gunsmith.
- ...have rudimentary rifling.
- ...be single-shot weapons.
- ...be loaded through the muzzle.
- ...fire by means of a flintlock.
Guns in 1791 WOULD NOT
- ...have interchangeable parts. (Popularized in 1798)
- ...be revolvers. (Invented in 1835)
- ...be breachloaded. (Popularized in 1810)
- ...use smokeless powder. (Invented in 1885)
- ...use a percussion cap, necessary for modern cartridged bullets. (Invented in 1842)
- ...load bullets from a clip. (Invented in 1890)
Arthur Goldberg, the little-remembered Supreme Court Justice who sat on the bench from 1962 to 1965, has been long-derided by social and political conservatives as something of a fool due to his concurrence in Griswold v. Connecticut, where he found a right to privacy in the Ninth Amendment. Lately, these same conservatives have been quoting and paraphrasing Justice Goldberg when they say things like "while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact," a line Justice Goldberg included in Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, 372 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1963). Applying an admittedly severe form of originalism to cabin the Second Amendment prevents the kind of suicide pact that Goldberg was worried about.
Michelle Obama created a bit of a stir earlier this week when she talked about how the need for guns might vary regionally within the United States. A backstop interpretation of the Second Amendment – one that only protects the individual right to bear arms as they stood in 1791 – permits states to develop right to bear arms appropriate to their circumstances.