At Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton argued the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in D.C. v. Heller, a landmark Second Amendment case, implicated storage laws and the safety of children.
“What the District of Columbia was trying to do was protect toddlers from guns,” Clinton said. “They wanted people with guns to safely store them, and the court didn’t accept that reasonable regulation, but they’ve accepted many other, and I see no conflict between saving people’s lives and defending the Second Amendment.”
Her account of the issues in the case, and the narrative which she crafts about gun control for her campaign, was fundamentally wrong.
The District of Columbia passed legislation forbidding citizens to register handguns as lawfully owned firearms, and rendered carrying an unregistered firearm a criminal act. The legislation further required that all registered firearms be kept unloaded and disassembled, or bound by trigger lock, provided they are not located in a place of business or being used for recreational activities. The law banned all but a few long rifles and handguns lawfully owned before the law was enacted.
The fundamental question of the case was this: Does the Second Amendment protect the right to keep and bear arms for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self defense? Professor Josh Blackman of Houston College of Law underscores this point. He writes: “The case in no way affected ‘safe storage laws.’ In fact, the District of Columbia still has safe storage laws in effect.” For Clinton to couch her answer to a question about Heller in this issue is to entirely miss the issue at stake and the ruling the Court rendered.
Professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve School of Law said as much on Twitter.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network and a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas also questioned Clinton’s command of the facts of the case.
The Court reasoned that the requirement of any lawful firearm to remain disassembled or bound by trigger lock renders the core, lawful exercise of self defense futile, and amounts to a requirement that fails to pass Constitutional muster by any standard of scrutiny.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia, who led the five-justice majority in the case, developed a comprehensive legal framework for understanding the Second Amendment.
The prefatory clause of the Second Amendment announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause, who’s text and history are demonstrative of the traditionally lawful activity of maintaining a firearm for the purpose of self defense. The necessity of a right to self defense is illustrated in the adoption of the amendment itself, which was promulgated to mollify the anti-federalist fear of a permanent and politicized standing army by protecting the right to raise a citizen militia.
This interpretation is given further credence by analogous rights in state constitutions during times proximate to the adoption of the Constitution, as well as the drafting history of the Constitutional Convention, which featured three specific propositions that refer to an individual right to bear arms.
The majority further argued that the word “people” was germane to interpretation of the original meaning, as those accorded a Second Amendment protection are the very same “people” afforded first and fourth amendment protections. The normal meaning of the word “people” would therefore exclude secret or technical meanings.
By extension, the Court found that a uniform ban on handguns was not only violative of the self defense purpose of the Second Amendment, but also offensive to the Miller decision, which found that ownership of guns “in common use at the time” was protected. As handguns were, as of 2008, in common use and common ownership in the United States, the precedent set in Miller is germane.
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