2nd Amendment Still Undecided, Hiding in Plain View

January 16, 2016

Robert Ludwig offers new legal and historical insights in response to “The Gun Epidemic,” the first New York Times front-page editorial in a century, urging: “It is past time to stop talking” and start reducing or “eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition” in the wake of San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and daily mass shootings. President Barack Obama, saying “enough is enough,” last week issued his own historic Times op-ed, “Our Responsibility,” and executive actions, constrained not only by Congressional inaction, but suprising myopia about the Second Amendment.

In a timely article, “2nd Amendment Still Undecided Hiding In Plain View” (Law360 Jan. 11, 2016), Mr. Ludwig points out that the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), a sharply divided 5-4 decision overturning D.C.’s handgun ban and two centuries of law and legislative practice, “remarkably did not address much less decide the full amendment as is assumed. Nor did Heller address, in roiling settled law if not domestic tranquility, the whole constitutional and founding record, which is far more extensive and clear than believed.”

“For openers, one would think that in construing the right ‘to keep and bear Arms,’ which the amendment commands ‘shall not be infringed,’ the court addressed the meaning of ‘infringed.’ Yet nowhere in Heller, overturning 200 years of law that the right was collective and not individual, does the court consider let alone decide that term, a smoking gun hiding in plain view.”

Heller did recognize the text says the right “‘shall not be infringed,’ but did not address what ‘infringed’ means.” Instead it “transposed ‘infringed’ to ‘abridged’ (‘Congress was given no power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms’), equating the two with no analysis.” Two years later an even more splintered court applied this newfound right against the states to strike down Chicago’s similar ban, again using “‘abridged’ and ‘infringed’ interchangeably, defining neither.”

Infringed and abridged are different words, the article explains, “have different meanings in period and modern dictionaries, and are not even synonyms. Where words ‘cannot, in any appropriate sense, be said to be synonimous,’ Justice Joseph Story once warned, to ‘suppose them to signify the same thing,’ as Heller and McDonald did, ‘would be to defeat the obvious purposes of both.’”

“Why did the framers use, in fact insist upon, ‘abridged’ and not ‘infringed’ when they intended an individual right?,” Mr. Ludwig asks. “The reason becomes obvious when one looks, as urged by Story: ‘It must have been the result of some determinate reason; and it is not very difficult to find,’ here in pertinent drafting history” and founding-era documents, none addressed in Heller.

In other words, Heller “never decided the question presented: whether D.C.’s handgun ban ‘infringed’ a Second Amendment right.” And until the court addresses the verb on which the entire Amendment rests, “arguably Heller, having neither addressed nor authoritatively decided whether anything was ‘infringed,’” has no effect on the courts or legislatures. That would mean “the court’s prior unanimous holding in 1939 which Heller never overruled, as unanimously reaffirmed by the Burger court in 1980, is still controlling.” As the latter affirmed, nothing in the amendment prevents “legislative restrictions,” including those called for in the Times editorial. “Gun rights and control groups have much to debate, just not the Second Amendment.”

This blog is excerpted from Robert Ludwig’s article, © 2016 All rights reserved. For further information, contact Mr. Ludwig at rludwig@ludwigrobinson.com or 202-289-7603.