An Alternative Answer in NYSRPA

[This discussion from Joseph Blocher and Reva Siegel is cross-posted from Oral Argument 2.0]

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York

No. 18-280 – Argued December 2, 2019

At Issue

Whether a New York City rule banning the transportation of a licensed, locked, and unloaded handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits violates the Second Amendment, the Commerce Clause, or the constitutional right to travel.

Advocates

  • Paul D. Clement, for the petitioners
  • Jeffrey B. Wall, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
  • Richard P. Dearing, for the respondent

Background and Case Commentary

In New York Rifle & Pistol Association, Richard Dearing—arguing for the government—faced an unusual challenge: Defending the constitutionality of a gun regulation that had already been repealed and replaced by a state statute. That development almost certainly rendered the case moot, and indeed three-quarters of the oral argument focused on the question of mootness.

But some of the Justices also wanted to discuss the constitutionality of the repealed regulation and the scope of Heller’s protections outside the home—and related merits questions we address here. The repealed regulation would have effectively prevented residents of New York from transporting their weapons out of the city, for example to a shooting range or a second home. This was seemingly a unique and relatively recent rule—not the kind of “longstanding” restriction approved as “presumptively lawful” in Heller. Moreover, while the Second Circuit had, in a divided opinion, found that the regulation satisfied intermediate scrutiny, the City could offer little evidence for its effectiveness in preventing gun crime. These merits issues, lurking in the “background” of the case, have received less attention to date.

Dearing, who was making his first-ever Supreme Court oral argument (against veterans Paul Clement and Jeff Wall), did a superb job arguing that the case is moot. But the posture of the dispute made it difficult for Dearing to defend the merits of the now-repealed law or address the government’s compelling interest in regulating guns.

Justice Alito had an exchange with Dearing (at pp. 52-53 of the transcript) in which Dearing, in hindsight, might have more clearly and emphatically defended the government’s authority to adopt the now-repealed law.

The Justice asked “Mr. Dearing, are the – are people in New York less safe now as a result of the enactment of the new city and state laws than they were before?” Dearing responded, “We – we no, I don’t think so.” Justice Alito pressed the point: “Well, if they’re not less safe, then what possible justification could there have been for the old rule, which you have abandoned?” Dearing replied that the prior rule made it easier for law enforcement to verify whether a person transporting a gun in public had a license to do so.

But then the Justice asked another follow-up—the question we address below, whether “The Second Amendment permits the imposition of a restriction that has no public safety benefit”—and Dearing yielded the premise of the question. With respect, as our proposed answer highlights, we think that Dearing could have stood his ground and defended the state’s prerogative to enact a law that might produce a “public safety benefit”—even if those benefits cannot be empirically validated.

To be clear, Dearing was focused on addressing the case’s mootness, not defending its prerogative to adopt the now-repealed regulation, and as we have observed, given the posture of the case, rolling out a more expansive account of the state interest would have been hard to do at oral argument. (With the benefit of time and space, we do so in a separate blog post here.)

That said, it does seem critical to assert that government has compelling interests in regulating guns in ways that cannot always be validated empirically, both because government needs the discretion and flexibility to respond to local circumstances and emergency conditions and because government needs to regulate in ways that preserve public confidence and trust.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York on Oyezhttps://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-280

Key Questions from Oral Argument

Justice Alito (45:12): So you think the Second Amendment permits the imposition of a restriction that has no public safety benefit?

Reva Siegel and Joseph Blocher: Your honor, two quick points on the concept of “public safety benefit.” First, new forms of gun regulation—like new forms of gun technology—won’t come with a deep empirical record one way or the other. But that fact should not prevent government from trying to address a problem in new ways. We need the states and local governments as laboratories of experimentation attempting to fashion locally appropriate solutions to complex problems of gun violence. Heller doesn’t limit those laboratories to repeating only those experiments they have tried before, nor should the government have to face the impossible burden of proving that a new law will certainly save lives.

Second, even when government lacks data showing that a particular gun law saves lives, the law might still provide an important benefit. The public harms of gun violence reach far beyond crime and injury, and the government’s interest is correspondingly broad as well. This Court has repeatedly recognized—including in strict scrutiny First Amendment cases like Williams-Yulee—that the state has an important and even compelling interest in promoting the public’s confidence and sense of security in institutions like courts and schools. The Court should similarly recognize the importance of such interests in the Second Amendment context.

Three Questions about the Second Amendment and the Temporary Closure of Gun Stores

The closure of “non-essential” businesses in response to the spread of Covid-19 raises a host of difficult legal questions. Among those questions, of course, are some involving right to keep and bear arms. Put simply: Does the Second Amendment permit gun stores be temporarily closed?

Some advocates and commentators have suggested that this is an easy question with a straightforward answer—temporarily closing gun stores is a per se unconstitutional infringement of the right to keep and bear arms, tantamount to a “suspension” of the Second Amendment (or perhaps a “ban”). But that kind of categorical conclusion belies the genuinely complex and interesting constitutional questions that such closures raise. Consider at least three.

Why Regulate Guns?

[This post by Reva Siegel and Joseph Blocher was originally published on the Take Care blog on 12/2 and and is cross-posted there.]

The Supreme Court is about to hear argument in its first major Second Amendment case in nearly a decade. The regulation in New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York (NYSRPA), which restricted transport of guns outside the home, has been repealed and replaced with a state law that seems to render the case moot. But if the Justices do not declare the case moot, they are expected to expand protections for the right recognized in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. Gun advocates are urging the Court to expand Heller beyond the home and to reject the current approach to Second Amendment law in favor of more stringent doctrinal alternatives. If the Court goes down that road and mandates closer scrutiny of governments’ justifications for regulating guns, the ruling could call into question the constitutionality of mainstream laws restricting high capacity magazines or requiring permits for carrying loaded weapons in public places like Walmart.

We write to focus attention on a taken-for-granted feature of the current framework that escalates in importance as the Court applies a more stringent standard of review: the state’s interest in regulating guns. Courts generally recognize that the government has a compelling interest in preventing wrongful shootings. But mechanical recitation of this public-safety interest has blocked consideration of the different communities and the different constitutional values that public safety regulation of guns serves. If the Court mandates increased scrutiny of gun laws, demanding evidence that a law is narrowly tailored to achieve the state’s interests—without properly accounting for what those interests really are—the Court is likely to create a framework that over-protects gun rights and invalidates gun legislation that the public has legitimate interests in enacting. Only by considering the different communities protected and different values vindicated by gun laws can judges determine whether, in a given case, the government has sufficient reasons for enacting a particular restriction on gun use, and what kinds of evidence are appropriate to support the government’s case.

NYSRPA arrives at the Court after years of claims by gun rights advocates that lower courts are “nullifying” the Second Amendment or treating it as a “second class right.” There are empirical reasons to doubt this claim, but in this post we raise a different reason it misdescribes the law. In short: case law narrowly accounts for the states’ important interests in regulating and so is likely to skew analysis if the Court demands closer scrutiny and narrow tailoring. Far from relegating the Second Amendment to a “second class right,” this narrow account of state interests has put the government at a disadvantage it does not necessarily face in other areas of constitutional law.

The state interest question is an important one for the Court to address in NYSRPA. Young Americans who have mobilized against gun violence under the banner of March for Our Lives (MFOL) filed an amicus brief that advances the state interest analysis, by making visible different communities that gun laws protect and important constitutional values that gun laws vindicate. The brief “presents the voices and stories of young people from Parkland, Florida, to South Central Los Angeles who have been affected directly and indirectly by gun violence,” and paints a graphic picture of the direct and indirect costs of gun violence on young people, in an effort to “acquaint the Court with the pain and trauma that gun violence has inflicted on them, and the hope that their ability to advocate for change through the political process affords them.”

The MFOL brief recounts the stories of young Americans who have survived gun violence and turned to the political process in an effort to manage the experience. They seek to persuade others of the importance of enacting gun safety laws that would protect their families, their friends, and themselves from similar violence in the future, and that would make possible safe places to assemble and to learn. The stories in the MFOL brief show that gun laws protect many communities and promote many goods—the laws surely serve state interests beyond the prevention of specific shootings.

Guns in schools do much more than threaten individual students with injury. One recent headline reported “356 victims” over the past ten years—counting only those killed or injured in 180 school shootings during that period. But even if one focuses only on students present in those schools, the true number of students victimized by gun violence is many hundreds times higher than that. Consider the children who hid, or fled, or were marched out of school with their hands in the air, or who lost friends, or (as powerfully described in the MFOL brief) watched their friends die, or wake up with nightmares. Anyone present in a school where a shooting takes place runs a risk of suffering lifelong trauma. By one count, approaching a quarter of a million school children have experienced school violence since Columbine. Through graphic accounts by survivors, the MFOL brief makes plain that shootings reverberate through society ravaging the lives of many more people than those who are shot. Shootings tear through urban communities. They haunt families, and transform the experience of neighborhoods and schools.

The managerial language of public safety does not do justice to the reasons individuals and groups seek to enact gun safety laws.  The “young people coming of age in an era of school shootings and rampant urban gun violence” entering politics to enact gun laws are exercising constitutionally protected freedoms of many kinds as they made plain in naming their movement “March For Our Lives.” When government legislates in response, it is doing more than preventing particular deaths. It is practicing responsive local democracy that simultaneously affirms the lives and voices of a new generation of citizens, affirming the long-standing role of states as laboratories of democracy, as the MFOL brief explains, “to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values.”

But there is more. Guns and gun violence impact people’s ability to enjoy the full range of their constitutionally guaranteed liberty, including the right to speak, to learn, and to peaceably assemble. For that matter, the government may have a compelling interest in legislating so as to improve public confidence in institutions like legislatures and schools—to demonstrate that these institutions can and will respond to the expressed needs of their citizenry, and promote the interest that all share in inhabiting public institutions and spaces in security and confidence and freedom from fear.

Even in First Amendment cases, the Court has recognized that the government has a legitimate interest in defending values and interests that go beyond remedying or preventing particular instances of wrongful conduct. In Roberts v. Jaycees, for example, the Court upheld a law prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations against a freedom of association challenge, noting that the law was designed to protect citizens “from a number of serious social and personal harms,” that discrimination in public accommodations “deprives persons of their individual dignity and denies society the benefits of wide participation in political, economic, and cultural life,” and that the state’s interest is not limited to “assuring equal access limited to the provision of purely tangible goods and services.”  The Jaycees case is important as it recognizes that public accommodation laws promote equal opportunity for individuals and communities by affirming equality values as well as by fairly distributing access to goods and services. The discussion of state interests in the Jaycees case illuminates the state interests in enacting gun laws as well. It suggests that states enacting gun laws can vindicate individual as well as societal interests. The Court’s analysis in Jaycees further suggests that the government can do more than promote its citizens’ bare interest in survival or freedom from physical harm. Government also has valid interests in protecting forms of public participation in community life, as well as cultivating the confidence of citizens in the responsiveness, effectiveness, integrity, and safety of its institutions.

Consider also a more recent state interest analysis: Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, which rejected a First Amendment challenge to a Florida law prohibiting judicial candidates from soliciting campaign funds. The Chief Justice’s majority opinion upheld the challenged law despite applying strict scrutiny. In doing so, the Chief Justice found that the Florida law was narrowly tailored. Not only did the law further the prevention of quid pro quo corruption, but it advanced the “State’s compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.” Can public confidence in the safety of schools be any less compelling?

This account of the state interests that legislation may serve has important implications for the constitutionality of gun laws going forward. If the government interest in enacting gun laws is understood as an interest in public safety, and public safety is understood as an interest in deterring wrongful shootings, measurable by deaths and injuries that a law can be shown to prevent, then the constitutionality of a gun regulation will depend on an empirical showing. And while there is plenty of good empirical evidence of this kind, framing the means-ends analysis in this framework can impose a heavy, and sometimes, insurmountable, burden on the government. The difficulties may be particularly acute for novel laws designed to address novel problems, where evidence (empirical comparisons of jurisdictions with and without such laws, for example) may not always be available, especially given the well-known difficulties in funding research on gun violence. That, in turn, could lead a skeptical judge to strike down a law on the tailoring prong, even while recognizing the compelling state interest in preventing wrongful deaths.

Recognizing a broader interest means that the constitutionality of a gun law need not pivot exclusively on how many shootings it can be shown to prevent. Instead a court may allow evidence that a law contributes to public confidence and a sense of safety in other ways that might not be subject to ready empirical evaluation. The government might still bear the burden, as it always does under heightened scrutiny, but it would not be required to carry that burden using empirical studies. Again, this is how constitutional adjudication sometimes works. In abortion cases, for example, courts do not require empirical evidence of how a particular restriction furthers state interests like the respect for potential life. Or, as the Chief Justice put it in Williams-Yulee, “The concept of public confidence in judicial integrity does not easily reduce to precise definition, nor does it lend itself to proof by documentary record. But no one denies that it is genuine and compelling.”

Too often, the gun debate is presented as if there are constitutional rights on one side (that of gun owners) and only nebulous policy “interests” on the other. But that frame misses precisely what is hard about the gun debate, and which our alternative conception of the state interest can potentially help show: Both sides feel urgently that they must do all they can to keep themselves and their children safe from gun violence. Both sides can appeal to constitutional values. As Justice Stevens recognized in McDonald, “in evaluating an asserted right to be free from particular gun-control regulations, liberty is on both sides of the equation. Guns may be useful for self-defense, as well as for hunting and sport, but they also have a unique potential to facilitate death and destruction and thereby to destabilize ordered liberty. Your interest in keeping and bearing a certain firearm may diminish my interest in being and feeling safe from armed violence.”

Gun owners regularly point to reassurance they feel in owning or carrying guns, even knowing that only a small fraction of them will ever use a gun in self-defense. As the stories in the MFOL brief powerfully demonstrate, advocates of regulation seek the same piece of mind through democratic politics. The Constitution is on both sides.

SCOTUSBlog Symposium: Disrupting the consensus on Second Amendment doctrine would be a mistake

[This post is part of a symposium on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, hosted on SCOTUSblog and is cross-posted there.]

Joseph Blocher is Lanty L. Smith ’67 Professor of Law at Duke Law School, where he co-directs the Center for Firearms Law. Eric Ruben is Assistant Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law and a Brennan Center Fellow. Along with Darrell A.H. Miller of Duke Law School, they filed an amicus brief in support of neither side in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York.

In one sense, the stakes in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York couldn’t be lower: The challenged regulation, a one-of-a-kind New York City restriction on transporting licensed handguns outside city limits, has already been repealed, arguably rendering the case moot. But when it comes to Second Amendment doctrine and methodology, the stakes are higher than they’ve been in a decade. If the petitioners have their way, the Supreme Court could reject the mainstream approach for deciding Second Amendment questions in favor of a more radical test focused solely on “text, history, and tradition” and without consideration of contemporary realities of guns and gun violence. That would be a mistake.

Unbannable Arms?

When it comes to the “Arms” protected by the Second Amendment, the conceptual space is typically divided into two categories. Some weapons, like those that are “dangerous and unusual,” can be banned without raising any constitutional problems. For those that are not dangerous and unusual, the government has to satisfy some requisite level of scrutiny. But—and I hate to do this again, having just made a conceptually similar argument about the Two Part test—there also seems to be a third category: Weapons that cannot be banned without categorically violating the Second Amendment.

Part Three of the Two Part Test

In the wake of Heller, state and federal courts have overwhelmingly applied what has come to be known as the “Two Part Test.” The first part is a threshold inquiry about whether the challenged regulation intersects with the Second Amendment at all. If the answer to that inquiry is yes, then courts move on to the second part: Typically some kind of means-end scrutiny, the stringency of which depends on how much the law burdens the “core” right of self-defense.

Domestic Violence and the Home: Hard Questions for the Second Amendment

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and as Jake noted in his post earlier this week, the Center fortunately had a chance to help coordinate a well-attended event on the topic, which was co-sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Coalition Against Gendered Violence, the Human Rights Law Society, the International Law Society, and the Women Law Students Association. The breadth of the sponsorship and positive response to the event were appropriate, since there is broad support for the wisdom and constitutionality of laws targeting the link between firearms and domestic violence (DV). Such laws are politically popular, and have been overwhelmingly upheld against Second Amendment challenges.

Scholarship and the “Constitutional Case for Gun Control”

Earlier this week, Yale law students Joshua Feinzig and Joshua Zoffer published a powerful piece in The Atlantic describing the “A Constitutional Case for Gun Control.” Inspired in part by Robert Cover’s work on the essential role of narrative in imbuing law with moral authority, they argue that the narrative-driven brief filed by the March for Our Lives Action Fund in NYSRPA “marks the beginning of a long-needed effort to offer a pro-gun-control constitutional narrative, one that calls attention to the constitutional rights and goods vindicated by gun regulation.”

Scholarship Highlight: “Libertarian Gun Control”

Most legal scholarship and public debate about gun rights and regulation focuses on whether and how gun laws can prevent homicide—understandably so, given the astounding number of gun homicides in the United States every year. But as those closer to the debate are well aware, the majority of gun deaths are by suicide. And far less discussion has been devoted to that uncomfortable and seemingly-intractable topic.

All of which means that Ian Ayres and Fred Vars’ “Libertarian Gun Control,” just published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, is an especially welcome addition to the literature. In it, they describe a system by which people could choose to waive their right to keep and bear arms—and to credibly communicate that decision to others, thereby setting up something of an associational marketplace. Such a system (distinct from the waiver that Dru Stevenson has discussed on this blog) could help prevent both homicides and suicides, all based on individual choice rather than traditional regulation.

The Second Amendment of Things (and Grievances)

[This post is part of a symposium on Mary Anne Franks, The Cult of the Constitution (Stanford University Press, 2019), hosted on the Balkinization blog and is cross-posted there.]

The second chapter of Mary Anne Franks’ exceptional new book, Cult of the Constitution, shows how constitutional fundamentalism distorts debates about gun rights and regulation. In doing so, it offers novel contributions to the increasingly vibrant scholarly literature on the Second Amendment. I’ll focus on two; one conceptual and the other doctrinal. The first is Franks’ focus on the physical instrument (the gun) that is central to the right; the second is what her argument suggests about the future of Second Amendment doctrine.