What The Heller
The 9th Circuits rejection of open carry for the purposes of lawful self-defense & why Justice Scalia bears responsibility.
Originally Published On Substack March 30th, 2021
Yesterday the Ninth Circuit gave it opinion in the en banc hearing for a case moving through the Courts since 2011 – This is Young v Hawaii – A case that has been of interest to Constitutional lawyers, second amendment advocates and people with the radical notion that a natural right of armed self-defense requires the ability to have those arms on your person to defend yourself. This has been a fundamental right throughout liberal philosophy. From Aristotle to Machiavelli Harrington, Locke, Rousseau & Beccaria
We find it in the English Common Law as Early as Statute of Northampton 2 Edw. 3, c. 3 (1328) A somewhat limited protection was found in the English Declaration of Rights of 1689 and William Blackstone in his great treatise of the common law:
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence [sic]… Which is also declared by the same and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
James Madison saw his draft of the Second Amendment as securing the English Common Law right from the Bill Of Rights, by removing limitations such as the English Game Laws which Charles II passed on the specious pretext that the open carry of arms was a threat to the vast hunting grounds reserved to the nobility.
Saint George Tucker referred to this individual right to keep and carry arms as “the true palladium of liberty.”
Tench Coxe spoke of private arms as “the second and better right hand of every freeman” and that the Constitution “Enshrined the right to keep, carry and use arms and consequently of self-defense and the public militia power.”
The 14 amendment’s privileges and immunities clause did incorporate an individual right to keep and carry arms. The amendment’s statutory companion the Civil Rights Act of 1866 explicitly states in section 7 protected “The full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and estate, including the Constitutional right of bearing arms for self-defense.” (Fun Fact: That particular clause was added specifically as a means of using Justice Taney’s racist dicta in the Dred Scot ruling against itself. At one point Taney states “If free blacks could be citizens that would give them the protection of constitutionally protected right of all free citizens…. Such as the right to keep and carry arms wherever they may go…”)
So how could the 9th Circuit possibly conclude:
“The en banc court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of an action challenging Hawai‘i’s firearm licensing law, Hawai‘i Revised Statutes § 134-9(a), which requires that residents seeking a license to openly carry a firearm in public must demonstrate “the urgency or the need” to carry a firearm, must be of good moral character, and must be “engaged in the protection of life and property.”
We have Justice Scalia to thank for this mess. While the 9th Circuit’s decision requires a very misleading interpretation of the DC v Heller (2008) it is a ruling that can be parsed out from Scalia’s dicta in the case and while the conclusion the second amendment may now be a dead letter thanks to Heller is a shocking conclusion, it’s not a surprising one.
This outcome was almost prophetically predicted by Nelson Lund, Professor of Law at George Mason University. Lund is one of the most eminent Constitutional Law scholars in the country and perhaps the most prolific modern Second Amendment scholar. In 2008, while most Second Amendment advocates were cheering Scalia’s ruling as his Swan Song of Original Public Meaning, Lund was virtually alone voicing his concerns. By 2015, some of the most pessimistic concerns about the way Heller and McDonald would be used not to secure the right to keep and bear arms, but to smother it became apparent in a dissent from denial of certiorari. Justice Thomas was absolutely livid.
He said: “The Supreme Court is treating the second amendment as a second-class right. The court routinely grants review in every case involving free speech, abortion, 4th amendment search and seizure. You name it, they are adjudicating on it. Any and every possible provision of the Constitution you please, they will take a case. But they treated the second amendment like a leper, they don’t even want to touch it.”
So, how did the Ninth Circuit possibly come to the following conclusion:
“To answer that question, and consistent with the Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), and McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010), the en banc court first considered whether Hawai‘i’s law affects conduct protected by the Second Amendment. After careful review of the history of early English and American regulation of carrying arms openly in the public square, the en banc court concluded that Hawai‘i’s restrictions on the open carrying of firearms reflect longstanding prohibitions, and therefore, the conduct they regulate is outside the historical scope of the Second Amendment. The en banc court held that the Second Amendment does not guarantee an unfettered, general right to openly carry arms in public for individual self-defense.”
We need to begin by briefly talking about the legal system we inherited from Great Britain. During the 18th century, the majority of the law came from ancient, unwritten customs. This was known as the English Common Law. Over time Judges began to look to the decisions of prior judges to assess what the ancient, unwritten customary law required. They would start to answer new and novel questions by starting with these judicial precedence and was based on analogy, rather than deduction from first principles. The law would change over time as they met faced new and novel challenges but these changes were so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible. There was, by the 18th century another set of laws that were known as statutes that were then enacted by a joint consent of Parliament and King. While statutes were capable o f overruling common law, in practice these judges tended to apply these statutes in a way that minimized any conflict with the common law. This system remained remarkably stable for centuries, even as great political changes and upheavals were going on. Crucially this happened because as conflicts gradually took away power from the King and Parliament, more and more began to exercise both the role of legislature and as the highest court in the land. The king appointed judges, but these judges tended to remain subordinate to the will of Parliament with regard to the substance of their decisions. Judges did remain independent. But their authority was not final and they had no power to exercise what we call judicial review, the ability to declare an act unconstitutional. Seconds, judges remained devoted the common law and to common law modes of reasoning. This was not inevitable. They understood their duty to be the application of English positive law, even if the results were, to their mind unjust, or contrary to a high law, like natural law. This system in the one we inherited following independence judges relied heavily on the common law and from time to time still do.
A key difference was our adoption of written Constitutions on first the state then the national level. This meant the courts were given a new kind of law to apply and it was assumed generally they would interpret these new laws the way their predecessors interpreted ordinary statutes and this is what they did for a long time. One major change was because this constitutional law was a law superior to acts of the legislature and that made it possible for courts to directly overrule elected representatives. This is the basis for the process of what we now call judicial review. This provision sparked a lot of controversy between federalists and anti-federalists during the Constitutional ratification debated of 1787-1788.
The most well-known, and most expertly argued example was an exchange between the antifederalist Brutus and Alexander Hamilton. In Brutus’ letters #11, 12 and 15 he was rightly concerned with the probability that judicial review would visibly extend the Court’s power beyond it Constitutional limits, making the judicial branch a potentially political body. Hamilton directly responded to Brutus in Federalist #78 and 81 that the Judiciary was a branch too weak and timid to ever be a treat to the other two political branches through an abuse of judicial review. This largely held true right up to the eve of the civil war.
Early jurists and scholars alike tried to ease fear by agreeing this power should be used sparingly and affirmed judicial review should only be applied in cases with clear Constitutional violations. In fact Judicial Review was only used once between the period of the Constitution’s enactment and the civil war In 1803 it was used to invalidate a minor statute about federal jurisdiction. By the time Justice Scalia came to the court in 1986 the judiciary bore little resemblance to Hamilton’s timid and modest court. Early Justices had initially acted as the founding generation envisioned in interpreting the Constitution. They used the tools already established under English law for use for centuries of interpreting statutes. They generally aimed to find the intent of the law giver by looking at the text and at other meanings and purposes of the law. They adopted Stare Decisis which assumes prior judicial decisions were correct. These aspects remained fairly stable until the Warren Court. This was the birth of the living Constitution, when the court began an aggressive and expansive adoption of old common law adjudication and less like traditional statutory construction. This came through 3 landmark developments. First was Brown v Board of Education. Which, despite it noble intention and positive outcome is a decision that is bereft of any legal analysis whatsoever. It was a politically motivated decision that did not state what the law, but what they wanted the law to be. Brown started out controversially, especially in the South, but in the end this was a major victory for the Court who scored a major political victory with this case. Because of this heady success the court grew ever bolder, imposing their own views of justice and salutary social policy for the nation.
Most conspicuously in the field of criminal civil procedure. It dramatically expanded the rights of a criminal defendant during a period of escalating violent crime. This meant the Court did not garner the same kind of political victory that came from striking down Plessy.
Finally, the Court found a Constitutional right to abortion in Roe v Wade. Again, we have a case entirely bereft of legal analysis. Unlike Brown, the decision in Roe has remained perpetually controversial and politically poisonous. Following Brown in the 1960’s the Congress passed statutes such as the civil rights acts that affirmed and even expanded Brown’s vision of racial justice. Conversely, following Roe several States repeatedly found ways to express discontent and opposition to abortion rights granted in Roe.
Before Scalia, the preceding conservative justices appointed after the New Deal practiced what could be called judicial restraint. They opposed the Warren Court’s Constitutional adventurism. Most notable of these was certainly William Rehnquist, who was a solid social conservative in his political views. But in his opposition to the Living Constitutionalist expansion he adopted something much like the incrementalism of the old Common Law adjudication. Rehnquist generally refined himself to resisting further expansion of the Warren Court doctrine and occasionally cutting it back, but only ever really nibbling at the edges.
Scalia was not the first person to advocate for Constitutional Originalism as a potential solution to the expansive powers claimed by the New Deal era and Warren Courts. I believed the well-known jurist Raoul Berger’s brilliant book “Government by Judiciary” was the first.
In 1986 Scalia comes to the court with his theory to undue the judicial activism of the warren court doctrine. Of course I mean Originalism. Specifically a stream of originalism called Original Public Meaning. That, just like if you were being asked to adjudicate a dispute over a private contract. How would you go about figuring out the proper meaning of any vague wording or words with more than one potential definition? You are certainly not going to consult black’s law dictionary, or the UCC. You are going to ask the two parties to that contract what that word or clause meant, as they understood it when they entered into the contract. Scalia, quite properly, said that the constitution should be read as a reasonably informed member of the public would have understood it to mean as the time of its drafting and ratification. Which squares very well with the place the Father of the Constitution himself urged later generations to look to. To the public debates that played out in the conventions of the several States that met to debate and ratify the Constitution, which is fundamentally a legal instrument and should be treated as such.
However, Scalia’s Originalism was an odd compromise. He tried to both give deference to stare decisis and an Originalist interpretation. The Heller case was considered by both Scalia himself and to the large body of Originalist scholars and jurists that had developed within his orbit to be the biggest victory for and the ideal culmination of his conception of Originalism.
In DC v Heller the holding, in its most basic sense found that the second amendment protected an individual right to keep a handgun in the home for the purposes of self-defense. This case relies on an extensive body of legal research that began to gain prominence in the 1980’s and Scalia’s opinion makes a compelling argument for two basic conclusions. First, it’s meant to protect a private right of individuals to keep and bear arms, not as a collective right of the state governments to maintain a militia. Second, the purpose of the second amendment is to protect a fundamental, inherent right of self-defense against two distinct forms of oppression. First, against a repressive government and second defense against criminal violence from which the government either cannot or will not adequately protect individuals from.
Unfortunately nothing about that answered the question at the heart of this case. Does the second amendment specifically protect to have a handgun in the home for the purposes of lawful self-defense? After all, the district of Colombia had banned possession of a handgun, but it allowed people to have rifles and shotguns, why didn’t that satisfy the second amendment?
There was obviously no discussion from the 18th century that could possibly address that question directly so Scalia had to find some other way to answer it. He said the DC handgun ban was unconstitutional because “It amounts to a ban on an entire class of arms that IS chosen by American society for the purpose of lawful self-defense.”
He went on to give a few examples of why that was reasonable and then he said “Whatever the reason whatever the reason handguns are the most popular weapon chosen for self-defense in the home and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”
This is not an Originalist analysis. It’s reliance on the popularity of handguns today looks more like the kind of result oriented, living Constitution approach Scalia spent his career denouncing.
Equally spurious is a small but very important addition about banning guns in “sensitive places” or the prohibition against dangerous and unusual weapons. (Language we later found out was added at the insistence of Chief Justice Roberts.) Another example of completely forsaking any commitment to Original Public Meaning
Then 2 years later we have McDonald which was a case that was to decide if the second amendment right is incorporated through the 14th amendment against both state and local government. Otis McDonald was an elderly black man who lived in a pretty bad neighborhood of Chicago. He didn’t trust the Chicago police department to protect him in his home (which is a smart move) and McDonald wanted to keep a gun in his house for protection
McDonald won the case with a 5 justice majority declaring the Chicago gun law unconstitutional. Interesting there was no majority opinion in the case. There were 4 votes to strike down this law through the application of substantive due process, while Clarence Thomas relied on the Privilege and Immunities clause. (An interesting topic in its own right and perhaps worth exploring in a future article) Unfortunately, the court said nothing about the scope of the amendment, just reaffirmed the Heller decision.
George Mason University’s Nelson Lund quickly caught on to the fact these cases were not the win most Second Amendment advocates assumed they were. He said that even though the holding in the case is consistent with the original meaning of the second amendment the dicta in the case would undermine future cases and make the second amendment a dead letter.
It’s now been over a decade since Heller and the Court has yet to set a tier of judicial scrutiny, they have not clarified who bears the burden of proof, It has not distinguished what weapons were protected, it doesn’t say where they were protected and it didn’t take long before it started becoming evident that the most important opinion in Heller was not Scalia’s majority. It wasn’t even Justice Stevens’s dissent. It was Justice Breyer’s dissent that called for an interest balancing approach. The “protection” of the second amendment right, if you can even apply the label of a “protection” to this approach affords the second amendment a protection that falls well below even a rational basis scrutiny. This is precisely what began to follow from Heller as the case was taken up again in Court of appeals and almost all courts now have begun to follow suit. The standard for review of gun laws in all inferior courts tends to be an interest balancing approach, and this seems to generally hold true for conservative judge’s as much as liberal judges. Heller’s dicta seems to be doing more damage than the good done by the holding. A good example is how the prohibitory language in Heller that prohibited weapons that are dangerous AND unusual. The most important word there being the conjunctive “and”.
But when a second amendment case was referred back down to the lower courts people like Judge Easterbrook in the 7th circuit changed it around, claiming no, no, no, it’s dangerous or unusual. The decision in Heller and the Courts refusal to entertain any new cert petition about gun rights for the decade since Heller has meant this kind of judicial malpractice by the 7th circuit goes unchallenged as they proclaim even if something is very common, if you call it dangerous it can now be banned. Look at standard capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Who knows how many millions upon millions of magazines have a standard capacity of more than 10 rounds. There’s no way you can say those standard capacity magazines are unusual, but it doesn’t take a very creative mind to understand that merely claiming they are dangerous because more than 10 rounds can hurt more people than less than 10 rounds.
After McDonald in 2010 we didn’t hear anything in the docket for their next session. As 2011 became 2012, became 2013 we were constantly reassured that we just need to be patient. Give it time and the Court will clarify the doctrine. However the Supreme Court had nothing more to say about this issue. Every cert petition was denied. Year after year, and denial after denial on all new second amendment cases.
The right to keep and bear arms has been trapped somewhere between legal limbo and constitutional purgatory. The lower courts continue to whittle away the Supreme Court’s rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, while seven justices stand by quietly, refusing to intervene.
Twice in 2015, Justices Thomas and Scalia called out their colleagues for abdicating the judiciary’s safeguard of the Second Amendment. First, the justices sat by idly as San Francisco rendered it impossible for law-abiding citizens to keep a handgun for self-defense. Second, the Supreme Court looked the other way as Highland Park, Ill., criminalized an entire class of rifles owned by millions of Americans.
It took until 2019 to finally see the court grant cert on a second amendment related case. What kind of case did they choose to review?
Was it looking at right to carry? No
The protection of AR style semi-auto rifles and carbines? No
Safe storage laws? No
It didn’t address magazine capacity, or restoring gun rights to people who had previously been charged with some non-violent crime. They took up the most narrow, insignificant, obscure case they possibly could have.
New York Rifle and Pistol Association v City of New York. For those who may not be familiar with this case NYC had an absurd law that said if you want to own a gun and live in NYC, if you want to take that gun with you to go to a shooting range, or if you have a second residence outside the city and you want to bring your gun with you there… And I don’t mean bring it holstered and on your person. To transport that gun to one of a small number of valid places other than your home in the city you need to have the gun disassembled, locked inside a proper secure lock box, and only in your trunk…. God help you if you are so reckless enough to have that unloaded, disassembled, securely locked up gun on the back seat – 100% non-functional and 100% inaccessible. That is downright criminal, says New York.
Thus Scalia’s greatest victory for originalism turned out not to be a truly originalist decision and it may have little lasting effect
The courts boldest innovations in recent decades have no doubt, in my view, been perversions of the common law approach. But they have generally employed what looks like more and more common law reasoning.
Heller’s conclusion may be entirely consistent with the original meaning of the second amendment (and I do believe that it is.) But Scalia’s failure to provide a genuinely Originalist rationale for that precise result brings the entire jurisprudential project into question besides being untethered to originalism the holding in Heller was narrowly limited. Only a handful of jurisdictions had adopted handgun bans so the decision had little immediate effect.
And we now see an even more damning opinion from the Ninth Circuit that says Heller holds citizens do not have a right to carry a gun on their person for lawful self-defense.
Was that the outcome Scalia would have intended? Certainly not. When he applied a reasonable Textualist construction to the operative clause’s use of bear arms he properly points to that language’s most natural interpretation as “to carry arms” for private self-defense he made its meaning irrefutably clear. But as with just about every other proper interpretation of the text he provides, all his careful interpretation came to mean little to nothing when his dicta created multiple misinterpretations of the entire amendment. In the end, his opinion was even less than unhelpful. A careful read of the opinion’s 50 pages dedicated to 2 clauses, with multiple asides that confuse the plain meaning and his addition of wholly unoriginal and unsupported assertions of “dangerous weapons” and “sensitive places” have unfortunately provided the ammunition for gun grabbers to shoot down an Originalist interpretation. Scalia’s ‘biggest victory’ may very well be the best friend of those who want to see the second amendment as a dead letter.