Last year's landmark Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller definitively settled the fact that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right—as opposed to a collective one—to keep and bear arms. Yet that ruling applied only to the federal government (which oversees Washington, D.C.). Does the Second Amendment apply against state and local governments as well?
Although Heller never answered that question, Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion did provide a very potent hint. In footnote 23, Scalia observed that while the Court's earlier ruling in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876) stated that the Second Amendment did not apply against the states, "Cruikshank also said that the First Amendment did not apply against the States and did not engage in the sort of Fourteenth Amendment inquiry required by our later cases."
To appreciate Scalia's meaning, consider that the Supreme Court has been protecting First Amendment rights from state and local abuse since 1925's Gitlow v. New York. The Court has done so under the so-called incorporation doctrine, whereby most of the Bill of Rights and certain other fundamental rights have been incorporated against the states via the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, which reads, "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Cruikshank is therefore a dead letter when it comes to free speech. So why should it still matter for gun rights? As the footnote basically points out, Cruikshank was decided before incorporation had even been invented. So it's the modern incorporation doctrine that matters now, not the long-dead reasoning behind Cruikshank.
This controversy lies at the center of last week's unfortunate decision in National Rifle Association v. Chicago (formerly McDonald v. Chicago), where the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Second Amendment offers zero protection against the draconian gun control laws currently in place in Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois.
It's a mistaken and also strangely misguided decision, as plaintiff's attorney Alan Gura (who previously argued and won Heller) demonstrates in the appeal he quickly filed with the Supreme Court. As Gura notes, not only did the 7th Circuit decline "to perform the required incorporation analysis," the court "erred in failing to heed Heller's cautionary statement that the pre-incorporation relics [including Cruikshank] lack 'the sort of Fourteenth Amendment inquiry required by our later cases.'"
Moreover, the 7th Circuit even suggested that federalism would best be served by letting the states disregard the Second Amendment entirely. "Federalism is an older and more deeply rooted tradition than is a right to carry any particular kind of weapon," Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the three-judge panel.
Yet as Gura rightfully responds in his petition, "To claim that of all rights, the Second Amendment must yield to local majoritarian impulses is especially wrong considering that the rampant violation of the right to keep and bear arms was understood to be among the chief evils vitiated by adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment." Indeed, the 14th Amendment was specifically written and ratified by the Radical Republicans after the Civil War to protect the recently freed slaves and their white allies from the depredations of the former Confederate states, including the infamous Black Codes, which curtailed property rights, liberty of contract, free speech, and the right to keep and bear arms.
The Second Amendment deserves the exact same respect as the rest of the Bill of Rights, nearly all of which have now been incorporated, something Gura is careful to explain. Which is precisely what the 7th Circuit should have said. Moreover, Gura persuasively argues that now is the right time for the Supreme Court to correct one of its most glaring historical errors by overturning the controversial Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), which essentially gutted the 14th Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause, which reads, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." As numerous legal historians have now documented, the text, original meaning, and history of that clause all point in one direction: It was designed to nationalize the Bill of Rights and other substantive rights.
The 7th Circuit essentially breezed past this argument, though it's perhaps worth noting that Judge Easterbrook did so while repeatedly referring to the "Privileges and Immunities Clause," which is actually located in Article IV of the Constitution, when he quite clearly meant to write (and refer to) the 14th Amendment's "Privileges or Immunities Clause." It's a small error, to be sure, though it's still one that the federal circuit ought not to make.
So what does all this mean for the future of the Second Amendment and gun rights? Last January, the 2nd Circuit, including Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, reached the same erroneous conclusion about incorporation as the Seventh did last week. Yet in April, the 9th Circuit got it right, holding in Nordyke v. King that, "the right to keep and bear arms is 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition'… [and] is necessary to the Anglo-American conception of ordered liberty." This split among the circuits means the Supreme Court will almost certainly take up the issue.
Given that Gura's provocative and sharply reasoned appeal is now in the Court's hands, and given that Chicago's contested handgun ban so closely resembles the D.C. ban nullified last year in Heller, this case offers the perfect opportunity for the Court to fully restore the Second Amendment to its rightful place in our constitutional system.
Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason.
Bonus video: Reason.tv talked with Alan Gura last June about "The High Stakes of the DC Gun Ban Case" just before the Supreme Court released its decision in the Heller case. Click below to watch and go here for downloadable versions and related materials.