Amy Coney Barrett Thinks the Second Amendment Prohibits Blanket Bans on Gun Possession by People With Felony Records
The SCOTUS contender's 2019 dissent will alarm gun control supporters but reassure people who want judges to take this constitutional provision as seriously as others.
Rickey Kanter, who owned a Wisconsin company that sold therapeutic shoes and footwear inserts under the brand name Dr. Comfort, pleaded guilty in 2011 to one count of mail fraud for shipping inserts he falsely claimed were approved by Medicare to a podiatrist in Florida. Kanter received a prison sentence of a year and day, followed by two years of supervised release. He also paid a $50,000 fine and agreed, in a separate civil settlement, to pay Medicare a $27 million reimbursement. But that was not the end of his punishment, since his felony conviction meant that he permanently lost the constitutional right to possess firearms.
That categorical ban on gun ownership by people with felony records, a feature of both Wisconsin and federal law, cannot be reconciled with the Second Amendment, Supreme Court contender Amy Coney Barrett concluded in a 37-page dissent from a 2019 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Barrett's thorough and scholarly opinion marks her as a judge committed to applying constitutional provisions in light of their historical background and original public meaning.
In the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court recognized that the Second Amendment protects the right to own guns for self-defense. At the same time, the majority opinion mentioned some "presumptively lawful regulatory measures," including "longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill." But both Barrett and her two colleagues on a 7th Circuit panel, who upheld the federal and Wisconsin bans that Kanter challenged, agreed that Heller did not settle the question of whether the Second Amendment allows the government to disarm someone like him.
"The constitutionality of felon dispossession was not before the Court in Heller, and because it explicitly deferred analysis of this issue, the scope of its assertion is unclear," Barrett wrote. "For example, does 'presumptively lawful' mean that such regulations are presumed lawful unless a historical study shows otherwise? Does it mean that as-applied challenges are available? Does the Court's reference to 'felons' suggest that the legislature cannot disqualify misdemeanants from possessing guns? Does the word 'longstanding' mean that prohibitions of recent vintage are suspect?"
In addressing a question that she and the majority agreed Heller left unresolved, Barrett considered English common law, proposed and ratified provisions of state constitutions in the U.S., and firearm restrictions enacted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her conclusion:
History is consistent with common sense: it demonstrates that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns. But that power extends only to people who are dangerous. Founding-era legislatures did not strip felons of the right to bear arms simply because of their status as felons. Nor have the parties introduced any evidence that founding-era legislatures imposed virtue-based restrictions on the right; such restrictions applied to civic rights like voting and jury service, not to individual rights like the right to possess a gun. In 1791—and for well more than a century afterward—legislatures disqualified categories of people from the right to bear arms only when they judged that doing so was necessary to protect the public safety.
That rationale does not easily fit laws that take away the Second Amendment rights of anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony (or, under federal law, "a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year," which is similar but not quite the same thing), no matter how long ago the offense occurred and whether or not it involved violence or even an identifiable victim. While Kanter ripped off Medicare (and therefore taxpayers), the government presented no evidence that his particular crime or any other personal characteristics showed he had violent tendencies that posed a threat to public safety.
The categorical ban on gun possession by people with felony records is therefore "wildly overinclusive," Barrett noted, quoting UCLA law professor Adam Winkler. "It includes everything from Kanter's offense, mail fraud, to selling pigs without a license in Massachusetts, redeeming large quantities of out-of-state bottle deposits in Michigan, and countless other state and federal offenses," she wrote. The ban is also underinclusive, she added, since people may reasonably be deemed dangerous even when they have not been convicted of a felony—for example, when they commit certain violent misdemeanors (another disqualification under federal law).
Given the poor fit between the ban's scope and its ostensible purpose, Barrett said, it is not "substantially related to an important government interest"—the test under the "intermediate scrutiny" that the majority said it was applying in this case. "Neither Wisconsin nor the United States has introduced data sufficient to show that disarming all nonviolent felons substantially advances its interest in keeping the public safe," she wrote. "Nor have they otherwise demonstrated that Kanter himself shows a proclivity for violence. Absent evidence that he either belongs to a dangerous category or bears individual markers of risk, permanently disqualifying Kanter from possessing a gun violates the Second Amendment."
Barrett closed with a warning that will alarm gun control advocates but reassure people dismayed by the failure of federal courts to follow up on Heller and the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago (which made it clear that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments) by taking the right to arms as seriously as other constitutionally protected rights. "While both Wisconsin and the United States have an unquestionably strong interest in protecting the public from gun violence, they have failed to show, by either logic or data, that disarming Kanter substantially advances that interest," she wrote. "On this record, holding that the ban is constitutional as applied to Kanter does not 'put the government through its paces,' but instead treats the Second Amendment as a 'second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees.'"