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?
After Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to express his dissatisfaction with the lower court ruling upholding the recent bump-stock ban, we’ve seen little additional movement this week. No new petitions, by my count, and no action on NYSRPA or the other pending petitions. Some quarters suggest that a longer wait for NYSRPA could indicate greater likelihood of a merits ruling, but it’s hard to say what’s causing the delay at this point. I still have to imagine the Chief is not eager to jump into another controversial issue right before the election if he can avoid it. And here there’s plenty of other gun cases—as show below—that are not at risk of generating mootness concerns to hear next Term.
This week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in June Medical v. Gee. I’ve written before about some of the parallels I’ve perceived in the debates over reproductive rights and firearm rights, and this case raises some new ones for me. As Amy Howe wrote for SCOTUSBlog, the questioning at oral argument focused on whether the law provided any benefits and what burdens it imposed. Might there be some clues in these arguments for how the justices are likely to approach an issue with a much different political valence?
Dissents have a key role to play in law. They allow judges or justices to articulate a view of how the law should be and serve as a signal to scholars, practitioners, and future generations. One thinks, for example, of Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States, which is often viewed as a vehicle for launching the modern understanding of the First Amendment. In the Second Amendment, doctrine has also been formed by the notion of dissent.
There was some thought after oral argument in NYSRPA that, given the tenor of questioning, a per curiam opinion on mootness would issue not too long after argument. As the case stretches out into the term, there may be some hope yet for the challengers to get a ruling on the merits. At the same time, it’s at least equally likely that a majority will rule on mootness grounds and that the delay is the result of one or more justices writing separate concurring/dissenting opinions addressing the merits. Only time will tell. And it is unlikely we’ll hear more news on the pending petitions until NYSRPA is dealt with (with the exception of non-Second Amendment firearms cases, like Guedes v. ATF below).
The Court today declined to take Guedes, the challenge to the Trump administration’s ban on bump stocks. Justice Gorsuch wrote separately, and only for himself. He argued that Chevron deference should have had no effect on the lower courts’ decisions upholding the ATF’s reinterpretation of what the term “machinegun” covers. As he says of the agency’s changing positions, “[W]hy should courts, charged with the independent and neutral interpretation of the laws Congress has enacted, defer to such bureaucratic pirouetting?” Though he ultimately agreed with the other justices that this case (in its current posture) was not a good vehicle for cert, he noted the other cases percolating in the lower courts and cautioned that “waiting should not be mistaken for lack of concern.”
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.
With the Court’s return from winter recess, we have a little more news than we’ve had in a few weeks. The Court, as expected, granted cert in Matsura to vacate the judgment below and remand in light of last Term’s decision in Rehaif v. United States, requiring the government to prove an individual knew his status that made him a prohibited person. (The Court also sent back two other cases in a similar posture as Matsura.) The Court also denied cert in Baker, challenging the reasonableness of a search in light of the Second Amendment.
Also, we have a new cert petition filed this week. In Rodriguez v. San Jose, the petitioner challenges the Ninth Circuit’s denial of her Second and Fourth Amendment claims arising from a warrantless seizure of her firearms after law enforcement took her husband into custody for a mental health evaluation.
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.
The Court comes back from its winter recess next week, so it’s possible we’ll see more movement and possibly even an order in NYSRPA soon.
Shawn Fields has posted an original and through-provoking new paper on Second Amendment Sanctuaries that will be published in the Northwestern Law Review later this year. From the abstract:
The term “sanctuary” has long expressed a sympathy for immigrants’ rights and resistance to federal immigration enforcement. Recently, the word has become associated with another divisive political topic, as local governments have begun declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” in defiance of statewide gun control measures they deem unconstitutional. This gun rights resistance movement not only flips the political script on the nature of sanctuaries but presents important and challenging questions about local-state power sharing, the proper scope of “subfederal commandeering,” and the role of coordinate branches in constitutional decision making.
This Article provides the first scholarly treatment of Second Amendment Sanctuaries. In doing so, it explores both the unique facets of this new localism and the broader implications for sanctuary movements generally. Most early commentary on Second Amendment Sanctuaries dismisses them as purely symbolic and presumptively invalid pursuant to state preemption principles and the judicial supremacy model of constitutional interpretation. This Article challenges that narrative and articulates a theory of limited viability for these and other local intrastate resistance movements.
The theory proceeds in three parts, with each part presenting a novel approach to local-state governmental conflict that contributes to the existing literature. First, localities can resist broad state preemption in limited circumstances via the state’s “home rule” provisions when local regulation of a particular issue is rooted in history and has normative policy appeal. Second, localities may passively resist statewide regulation through a form of “subfederal anticommandeering” analogous to the Tenth Amendment’s anticommandeering principles protecting states from federal overreach, so long as the locality takes no affirmative steps to frustrate state enforcement. Third, local enforcement officers may defend their resistance on substantive constitutional grounds when the right at issue is not settled firmly by the judiciary. This “first impression departmentalism” reflects the proper role all coordinate branches of government have in defining the contours of constitutional provisions when emerging doctrine remains in a state of flux. These principles counsel in favor of the viability of at least some Second Amendment Sanctuaries as currently constructed, as well as sanctuaries resisting firearm deregulation and other statewide policy initiatives.