In twenty-two states, ATF allows licensed firearm dealers (FFL’s) to accept a state concealed carry license or permit (in Michigan, the terminology is Concealed Pistol License, or CPL) in lieu of a federal background check, because those states have concealed carry permit requirements at least as stringent as the federal background check requirements (see the ATF Permanent Brady Permit Chart, so-named because the state’s permit or license program fulfills the requirements of the federal Brady Law background checks for firearm purchases on an ongoing basis). In practice, this means that permit/license holders in these states can skip the NICS background check when purchasing firearms from a licensed gun dealer, whether online, in-store, or at a gun show, even though normally required for the dealer to do the background check. Note the caveat that an individual’s permit or license must be less than five years old, so in states that issue “lifetime” permits or licenses (Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee), the permit/license holder will have to renew it every five years in order to skip the NICS background check when purchasing a firearm from an FFL.
Is “text, history, and tradition” (THT) an example of what linguists would call a “hendriatris,” referring to a single jurisprudential/decisional approach, or do each of the three words have semantic significance?
In my forthcoming article, The Complex Interplay Between the Controlled Substances Act and the Gun Control Act, I focus on 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3), which in its current form incorporates the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) by reference and thereby prohibits violators of the CSA from possessing a firearm. This statutory intersection currently results in more than 14,200 individuals per year failing a background check for gun purchases, and around two hundred prosecutions per year for possession of guns by drug users as the lead charge. Circuit courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of §922(g)(3), even in the years after Heller.
ATF Guidance Documents and Enforcement
In September 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives released an Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL’s), providing regulatory guidance as to the intent of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) and its interaction with state laws that legalize marijuana in some way. The guidance document reminds FFL’s that as the Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance “and there are no exceptions in Federal law for . . . . medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by State law,” the use of marijuana qualifies an individual under federal law as an “unlawful user” for purposes of 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3). Nevertheless, since 1996, at least thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.
In January 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a memorandum (the “Sessions Memo”) rescinding all previous guidance regarding prosecutions in medical marijuana states, deferring instead to nebulous “well-established general principles” which included considerations such as “the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution.” This superseded prior DOJ policy (also known as the “Cole Memorandum” from 2013) which focused prosecutions, in relevant part, in “[p]reventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distributions of marijuana” and deferring to state and local law enforcement for activity beyond the stated scope of DOJ priorities. It is unclear how the shift in DOJ directives after the 2018 memorandum has impacted federal prosecutions of gun possession prosecutions under §922(g)(3) in states with medical marijuana and legalized marijuana, but 2017 statistics indicate that the number of prosecutions under §922(g) generally had already begun to increase following a decline in the period from 2013 to 2015 (the timeframe after the Cole memorandum through the end of the sitting administration). Given the growing resistance among some big city prosecutors to charge for mere possession of marijuana without aggravating factors indicating dealing, the federal prosecutors’ directives appear to be going in a different direction than at least some state prosecutors in areas having the highest incident rates.
William P. Barr became Attorney General in 2019, and announced that he supports “the prosecutorial priorities” that were put in place by the Sessions Memo, which included an emphasis on “violent crime, drugs, immigration, and national security.” The DOJ appears to have turned more of its resources to the prosecution of firearms offenses, prosecutions under §922(g) are at an all-time high, and convictions under §922(g) have risen every year since 2015 (see here).
Gun Permits & Licenses for Lawful Marijuana Users
Four months before the 2011 ATF Open Letter, Oregon’s highest court, sitting en banc, decided Willis v. Winters, which held that the federal prohibition on firearm possession “by persons who, under federal law, are ‘unlawful user[s] of a controlled substance,’” does not preempt the State’s licensing statute. The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act authorizes medical marijuana use and requires registration of such authorized users, and Oregon state statutes have a “shall issue” regime for concealed handgun licenses. Several sheriffs had denied concealed carry licenses applications and renewals submitted by medical marijuana registrants, despite their full compliance with the State’s statutory standards for licensing, on the premise that 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) preempted the State’s licensing statute – arguably, issuance of a license under the circumstances would violate §922(t)(3) and §922(a)(6) (which prohibits false statements on background check forms and similar actions). The Willis court, however, held that under Oregon’s statutory code, the sheriffs are statutorily-bound “to issue CHLs to qualified applicants, without regard to the applicant’s use of medical marijuana.” Because the licensing statute proscribes the concealment of firearms and “is not directly concerned with the possession of firearms,” it does not interfere with the full enforcement of the Federal statute. The court explained:
[I]t is possible that the sheriffs in this case could themselves enforce section 922(g)(3) of the federal Gun Control Act against medical marijuana users who possess guns in violation of federal law. The federal act makes such possession illegal, the sheriffs generally are authorized to enforce federal as well as state law, and no state law prohibits the sheriffs from taking such enforcement actions. But it appears that the sheriffs also wish to enforce the federal policy of keeping guns out of the hands of marijuana users by using the state licensing mechanism to deny CHLs to medical marijuana users. The problem that the sheriffs have encountered is that Congress has not enacted a law requiring license denial as a means of enforcing the policy that underlies the federal law, and the state has adopted a licensing statute that manifests a policy decision not to use its gun licensing mechanism for that purpose: State law requires sheriffs to issue concealed gun licenses without regard to whether the applicants use medical marijuana.
In other words, the sheriffs cannot deny concealed handgun licenses to medical marijuana registrants, but they are free to arrest those registrants if they do, in fact, possess a handgun. Federal law does not mandate the use of state gun licensing schemes in enforcing §922(g)(3), nor, the court held, could Congress do so without commandeering “the policy-making and enforcement apparatus of the states.” This decision remains good law in Oregon.
The Willis decision garnered attention from both marijuana advocates and pro-gun advocates, but other cases since then have been trending in the other direction, and the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act continues to give concern to the courts and create confusion for firearm owners who may use medical marijuana in the (majority of) states that have now legalized its use. For a recent example, in Bradley v. United States, 402 F.Supp.3d 398 (N.D. Ohio, Aug. 14, 2019), a gunowner wanted to register for Ohio’s medical marijuana program and claimed that §922(g)(3) prevented him from doing so, thereby violating his Second Amendment rights, as well as the Equal Protection clause. Bradley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but was barred by federal law from participating in Ohio’s medical marijuana program because he was in possession of a firearm. The court rejected his claims, in part because he faced no imminent threat of prosecution (lacked standing) and partly because his Second Amendment claim was implausible. The court cited numerous cases from other district and circuit courts consistently holding that §922(g)(3) did not violate the Second Amendment, including situations where marijuana consumption would have been legal under state law, yet the courts affirmed “the constitutionality of §922(g)(3) under the Second Amendment” in that context.
The Sixth Circuit reached the same conclusion in United States v. Bellamy, 682 Fed.Appx. 447 (6th Cir. 2017) (unpublished), holding that §922(g)(3) applied even if defendant held a state-issued medical marijuana card. At the same time, Bellamy did not include a Second Amendment claim, but was decided on statutory and preemption grounds.
A pair of recent reports address the number of firearms being manufactured and already in circulation: one from the ATF (a 2019 AFME report/update on manufactured, imported, and exported guns for 2017), which, along with previous ATF annual reports, furnished part of the basis for an industry annual report published by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) on December 4 (see also here for a nice brochure-style report with colorful tables). The two big takeaways are that the NSSF now estimates there are 17.7 million “modern sporting rifles” in circulation (AR-15’s and similar long guns), and 423 million firearms total in the U.S. – the latter being a significantly higher number than major news outlets, nonprofits, criminologists, or public health researchers have been using for the existing stock of firearms.
On November 26, the Indiana Supreme Court denied review in an important case regarding tort liability for gun manufacturers and the Protection for Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA): City of Gary v. Smith & Wesson Corp. The latest ruling leaves in place a Court of Appeals decision from last May, which in turn means that the case can finally proceed to trial. This puts the case in the same procedural status as Remington v. Soto, in which the U.S. Supreme Court denied review two weeks earlier (the Indiana Supreme Court may in fact have been waiting for the SCOTUS decision about Soto before rendering its own ruling).
A previous post explained how Steven Leroy Snyder failed his firearm purchase background checks on three occasions, but he passed the same background check when he renewed his concealed carry permit around the same time. He pursued both administrative remedies with the FBI to challenge the gun purchase denials and correct whatever inaccurate information was in the FBI’s databases regarding him. Frustrated by the lack of progress on this front, Snyder sought relief in federal court. Snyder brought his lawsuit under 18 U.S.C. § 925A, which provides that an otherwise lawful purchaser denied a firearm due to an error in the background check system “may bring an action against the State or political subdivision responsible for providing the erroneous information, or responsible for denying the transfer, or against the United States, as the case may be, for an order directing that the erroneous information be corrected or that the transfer be approved, as the case may be.” This avenue for judicial redress runs as another parallel track to the VAF process and the administrative procedure for challenging a denial, and Snyder availed himself of all three.
A recent federal district court decision from Washington State, Snyder v. United States, highlights the complex interplay of gun rights and the background check bureaucracy. The October 30 decision brings together several areas of Administrative Law – judicial recourse (available relief) for adverse agency actions, cooperation and split responsibility between state and federal agencies, administrative reconsideration procedures, statutory default provisions for agency delays, and how agencies obtain information and correct mistaken information. In the background, of course, is the Second Amendment – the complaint does not include a Second Amendment claim, but the court mentions it in passing twice in the opinion. The court’s ruling is on cross motions for summary judgment, deciding in favor of the government, and against the would-be gun purchaser.
A federal district court decision from September 30 raises some novel legal issues regarding firearm policy (the case is captioned Powell v. State of Illinois but is still at the pre-trial stage). On September 30, 2019, U.S. District Judge Joan Gotschall issued a breathtaking 34-page opinion denying in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss; it allows the case to move forward to discovery. (See news coverage of the opinion here and here). The plaintiffs, representing a class of Chicago African American school children, link inexcusably high levels of gun violence with childhood learning disabilities and a lack of reasonable accommodations. The statutory basis for the claim is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with the Illinois Civil Rights Act; the children-class representatives suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other learning disabilities due to daily exposure to gun violence, including witnessing the shooting deaths of immediate family members. The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief in the form of state gun regulations, primarily directed at gun dealers, “which they contend would appreciably stem the tide of gun violence in Chicago.” (For helpful reporting on the complaint from when it was filed, see here and here). It is worth reiterating that the September 30 decision, though significant, is merely a ruling on a motion to dismiss – a trial on the merits is still in the future. Most cases settle before trial, so this case could end in a pre-trial settlement sometime in the next few months, without generating a verdict on the merits or subsequent appellate decisions.
The case focuses on Chicago, but it highlights a pervasive problem for urban communities nationwide – regular exposure to neighborhood gun violence is a significant factor in educational inequality, because it interferes with learning, educational achievement, and school operations. The idea behind the case is that concentration of gun violence in neighborhoods beset with poverty is the foreseeable and inevitable consequence of an overly abundant supply of easily accessible firearms. Gun violence and homicides have reached epidemic levels in recent years among minority teenagers in the United States, and the constant disruption, trauma, and fear that go along with such day-to-day violence significantly affect the educational and psychological development of urban youth, and thus their eventual educational and career achievements. The plaintiffs’ complaint and brief draw heavily from a growing body of academic research from sociologists, psychologists, educational theorists, and public health researchers to support these points. The plaintiffs in this case argue that comprehensive community solutions to reduce gun violence are inseparable from policies promoting educational equality, as decreased gun violence boosts educational achievement and helps the school environment.
The judge’s opinion opens with a simple, sad observation: “It is common knowledge that, as the plaintiffs in this proposed class action allege, gun violence has ravaged the City of Chicago for decades and that the violence is concentrated in predominately African-American neighborhoods.” Other courts have acknowledged this as well. Chicago has one of the highest rates of gun homicides in the country, and twenty percent of the homicide victims in Chicago are teenagers or younger. The racial disparity among victims is striking: eighty percent of the murder victims in Chicago are African-American, even though African-Americans are only about one-third of Chicago’s total population; African-American men from age 15 to 34 are only 4% of the city’s population, but they comprise half of the homicide victims. The national homicide rate is around 5 per 100,000, but the African American neighborhoods in Chicago have rates from 87-180 per 100,000, while the predominately white neighborhoods have homicides very rarely, and in some years, none. Chicago is awash in guns, a large share of which come from seven identifiable gun dealers, either through loosely-regulated but legal sales, or through thefts from these stores (hundreds of guns per year that enter the black market).
This case is interesting from a legal perspective for several reasons. First, the plaintiffs are claiming a statutory (not constitutional) right to be free from daily gun violence, under both federal (the A.D.A.) and state law. Second, the case does not directly implicate Second Amendment rights – the plaintiffs are not suing gun owners, dealers, or manufacturers, but instead state officials who are (allegedly) not implementing the firearm regulatory regime mandated in Illinois’ state statutes. Of course, the injunctive relief that the plaintiffs are seeking are a combination of regulatory and enforcement actions by state law enforcement officials that would raise some Second Amendment issues. Indeed, the very statute that the plaintiffs want implemented is currently the subject of separate litigation by gun rights groups, claiming that the Illinois FOID law violates (among other things) the Second Amendment. So, Second Amendment advocates will watch this case closely as it moves forward; some groups, such as the NRA-ILA, have already decried the September 30 opinion on their website. Another noteworthy feature of the case is that the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, except potential attorneys’ fees if they prevail on their injunctive relief claims.
A third reason this case is interesting, from a legal standpoint, is that the plaintiffs are seeking, at least primarily, the promulgation of regulations, rather than enforcement actions. In the field of administrative law, lawsuits to compel government agencies to undertake specific enforcement actions are notoriously difficult to win, both on the merits and on standing grounds. After Massachusetts v. EPA, however, a distinction has emerged between actions to compel agency enforcement, versus actions to compel agencies to promulgate rules. The later, under Massachusetts, is a stronger claim, especially for purposes of plaintiffs establishing standing, but potentially also on the merits, if there is a clear enough statutory mandate for an agency to regulate. Another similarity to Massachusetts v. EPA is the complex issue of standing to sue, which was the focus of the defendants’ motion to dismiss and a large section of the opinion – as in Massachusetts, a case about the EPA’s refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting effects of rising sea levels – the plaintiffs can articulate concrete and particularized injury-in-fact (medically diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and its direct effects on school behavior and learning), but the alleged injury is the combined effect of innumerable independent actors and factors, which in the aggregate are an indirect but foreseeable result of a government agency’s refusal (or failure) to regulate the activities of these actors.
From a more abstract policy or political science standpoint, the opinion (and even more so the original complaint) highlights the tradeoffs with guaranteed rights, such as Second Amendment rights – the idea that protection of any right means a restraint on another individual, group, or entity. Or, from the other angle, protection of the rights of disabled children in Chicago (the plaintiff class in Powell) would seemingly require injunctive relief that would entail restraints on the gun trade that many perceive as an infringement on the right to bear arms. If the right to bear arms includes an individual right to buy and keep firearms for self-defense, an implication of this right might be a readily accessible retail market for acquiring guns. The market infrastructure necessary to make guns widely available for purchase, in turn, means there will inevitably be a certain amount of straw purchasers, dealers who knowingly violate gun laws, gun thefts, a secondary market for used guns that blurs into the black market, and individuals who become legally ineligible for gun ownership (statutorily “prohibited persons”) after they are already in possession of some firearms. These are the types of spillover effects that the plaintiffs outline in their complaint, and that the relevant state statutes (Illinois’ FOID Act) were supposed to address, at least in part. It will be interesting to see how the case progresses, and if the case settles or results in a favorable verdict for the plaintiffs, if the state is in fact able to implement the changes the plaintiffs seek.
I returned home to Houston from the workshop at the Duke Center for Firearms Law on Saturday morning, and reached my home just as the news reports broke from El Paso about the massacre at the Wal Mart there. When I woke up the next morning, there were news reports about a similar atrocity in Dayton, OH. The same weekend, the city of Chicago had 52 shootings (numerous separate incidents), with seven fatalities, its deadliest weekend so far in 2019. Mt. Sinai Hospital had to divert ambulances to other trauma centers because it reached its maximum capacity.