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S. Ct. Will Review Whether Second Amendment Allows Disarming of People Subject to Civil Restraining Orders


The Supreme Court just announced that it will consider this issue, in U.S. v. Rahimi; this is unsurprising, since the Court is generally inclined to review cases where a court held that a federal statute was unconstitutional, and where the federal government asks for review. Here's my post from February, when the Fifth Circuit decided the case (see also Stephen Halbrook's post after the denial of en banc rehearing, where he noted that Supreme Court review was likely):

From U.S. v. Rahimi, decided today by the Fifth Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Cory Wilson, joined by Judges Edith Jones and James Ho:

The question presented in this case is not whether prohibiting the possession of firearms by someone subject to a domestic violence restraining order is a laudable policy goal. The question is whether 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8), a specific statute that does so, is constitutional under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the light of N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass'n, Inc. v. Bruen (2022), it is not.

The court rejected the view that, under Heller and Bruen, legislatures can disarm anyone who isn't a "law-abiding, responsible citizen[]":

There is some debate on this issue. Compare Kanter v. Barr (7th Cir. 2019) (Barrett, J. dissenting), abrogated by Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111, with Binderup v. Att'y Gen. (3d Cir. 2016) (en banc) (Hardiman, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgments). As summarized by now-Justice Barrett, "one [approach] uses history and tradition to identify the scope of the right, and the other uses that same body of evidence to identify the scope of the legislature's power to take it away." The Government's argument that Rahimi falls outside the community covered by the Second Amendment rests on the first approach. But it runs headlong into Heller and Bruen, which we read to espouse the second one.

Unpacking the issue, the Government's argument fails because (1) it is inconsistent with Heller, Bruen, and the text of the Second Amendment, (2) it inexplicably treats Second Amendment rights differently than other individually held rights, and (3) it has no limiting principles….

Heller explained that the words "the people" in the Second Amendment have been interpreted throughout the Constitution to "unambiguously refer[] to all members of the political community, not an unspecified subset." Further, "the people" "refer[] to a class of persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with this country to be considered part of that community." … Heller's exposition of "the people" strongly indicates that Rahimi is included in "the people" and thus within the Second Amendment's scope.

To be sure, as the Government argues, Heller and Bruen also refer to "law-abiding, responsible citizens" in discussing the amendment's reach (Bruen adds "ordinary, law-abiding citizens"). But read in context, the Court's phrasing does not add an implied gloss that constricts the Second Amendment's reach. Heller simply uses the phrase "law-abiding, responsible citizens" as shorthand in explaining that its holding (that the amendment codifies an individual right to keep and bear arms) should not "be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings …." …

The Government's reading of Heller and Bruen also turns the typical way of conceptualizing constitutional rights on its head. "[A] person could be in one day and out the next: the moment he was convicted of a violent crime or suffered the onset of mental illness, his rights would be stripped as a self-executing consequence of his new status." Kanter (Barrett, J., dissenting). This is "an unusual way of thinking about rights [because i]n other contexts that involve the loss of a right, the deprivation occurs because of state action, and state action determines the scope of the loss (subject, of course, to any applicable constitutional constraints)." "Felon voting rights are a good example: a state can disenfranchise felons, but if it refrains from doing so, their voting rights remain constitutionally protected." The Government fails to justify this disparate treatment of the Second Amendment.

Perhaps most importantly, the Government's proffered interpretation lacks any true limiting principle. Under the Government's reading, Congress could remove "unordinary" or "irresponsible" or "non-law abiding" people—however expediently defined—from the scope of the Second Amendment. Could speeders be stripped of their right to keep and bear arms? Political nonconformists? People who do not recycle or drive an electric vehicle? One easily gets the point: Neither Heller nor Bruen countenances such a malleable scope of the Second Amendment's protections; to the contrary, the Supreme Court has made clear that "the Second Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans." Rahimi, while hardly a model citizen, is nonetheless part of the political community entitled to the Second Amendment's guarantees, all other things equal….

The court concluded that therefore, under Bruen, § 922(g)(8) could be upheld only if it were sufficiently analogous to historically accepted limitations on guns; and it held that none of the proposed analogies worked:

[W]e focus on these key features of [§ 922(g)(8): (1) forfeiture of the right to possess weapons (2) after a civil proceeding (3) in which a court enters a protective order based on a finding of a "credible threat" to another specific person, (4) in order to protect that person from "domestic gun abuse." … To sustain § 922(g)(8)'s burden on Rahimi's Second Amendment right, the Government bears the burden of proffering "relevantly similar" historical regulations that imposed "a comparable burden on the right of armed self-defense" that were also "comparably justified." …

The Government offers potential historical analogues to § 922(g)(8) that fall generally into three categories: (1) English and American laws (and sundry unadopted proposals to modify the Second Amendment) providing for disarmament of "dangerous" people, (2) English and American "going armed" laws, and (3) colonial and early state surety laws. We discuss in turn why each of these historical regulations falter as "relevantly similar" precursors to § 922(g)(8)….

Under the English Militia Act of 1662, officers of the Crown could "seize all arms in the custody or possession of any person" whom they "judge[d] dangerous to the Peace of the Kingdom." Citing scholarship, the Government thus posits that "by the time of American independence, England had established a well-practiced tradition of disarming dangerous persons—violent persons and disaffected persons perceived as threatening to the crown."

But the Militia Act's provenance demonstrates that it is not a forerunner of our Nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation. Under Charles I (who reigned 1625–1649), the Crown and Parliament contested for control of the militia. After the resulting civil war and Oliver Cromwell's interregnum, the monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II took the throne. Charles II began using the militia to disarm his political opponents. The Militia Act of 1662 facilitated this disarmament, which escalated under the Catholic James II once he took the throne in 1685. After the Glorious Revolution, which enthroned Protestants William and Mary, the Declaration of Rights, codified as the 1689 English Bill of Rights, qualified the Militia Act by guaranteeing "[t]hat the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law." "This right," which restricted the Militia Act's reach in order to prevent the kind of politically motivated disarmaments pursued by Charles II and James II, "has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment." This understanding, and the history behind it, defeats any utility of the Militia Act of 1662 as a historical analogue for § 922(g)(8).

The Government next points to laws in several colonies and states that disarmed classes of people considered to be dangerous, specifically including those unwilling to take an oath of allegiance, slaves, and Native Americans…. [But t]he purpose of these "dangerousness" laws was the preservation of political and social order, not the protection of an identified person from the specific threat posed by another. Therefore, laws disarming "dangerous" classes of people are not "relevantly similar" to § 922(g)(8) such that they can serve as historical analogues.

Finally, the Government offers two proposals that emerged in state ratification conventions considering the proposed Constitution. A minority of Pennsylvania's convention authored a report in which they contended that citizens have a right to bear arms "unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury." And at the Massachusetts convention, Samuel Adams proposed a qualifier to the Second Amendment that limited the scope of the right to "peaceable citizens."

But these proposed amendments are not reflective of the Nation's early understanding of the scope of the Second Amendment right. While they were influential proposals, neither became part of the Second Amendment as ratified. Thus, the proposals might somewhat illuminate the scope of firearm rights at the time of ratification, but they cannot counter the Second Amendment's text, or serve as an analogue for § 922(g)(8) ….

The Government also relies on the ancient criminal offense of "going armed to terrify the King's subjects." This common law offense persisted in America and was in some cases codified…. [But] those laws only disarmed an offender after criminal proceedings and conviction. By contrast, § 922(g)(8) disarms people who have merely been civilly adjudicated to be a threat to another person. Moreover, the "going armed" laws, like the "dangerousness" laws discussed above, appear to have been aimed at curbing terroristic or riotous behavior, i.e., disarming those who had been adjudicated to be a threat to society generally, rather than to identified individuals. Thus, these "going armed" laws are not viable historical analogues for § 922(g)(8)….

Lastly, the Government points to historical surety laws. At common law, an individual who could show that he had "just cause to fear" that another would injure him or destroy his property could "demand surety of the peace against such person." The surety "was intended merely for prevention, without any crime actually committed by the party; but arising only from probable suspicion, that some crime [wa]s intended or likely to happen." If the party of whom surety was demanded refused to post surety, he would be forbidden from carrying a weapon in public absent special need….

The surety laws come closer to being "relevantly similar" to § 922(g)(8) than the "dangerousness" and "going armed" laws discussed supra. First, they are more clearly a part of our tradition of firearm regulation. And they were "comparably justified," in that they were meant to protect an identified person (who sought surety) from the risk of harm posed by another identified individual (who had to post surety to carry arms). Put simply, the why behind historical surety laws analogously aligns with that underlying § 922(g)(8).

Aspects of how the surety laws worked resemble certain of the mechanics of § 922(g)(8) as well. The surety laws required only a civil proceeding, not a criminal conviction. The "credible threat" finding required to trigger § 922(g)(8)'s prohibition on possession of weapons echoes the showing that was required to justify posting of surety to avoid forfeiture. But that is where the analogy breaks down: As the Government acknowledges, historical surety laws did not prohibit public carry, much less possession of weapons, so long as the offender posted surety. See also Bruen (noting that there is "little evidence that authorities ever enforced surety laws"). Where the surety laws imposed a conditional, partial restriction on the Second Amendment right, § 922(g)(8) works an absolute deprivation of the right, not only publicly to carry, but to possess any firearm, upon entry of a sufficient protective order. At bottom, the historical surety laws did not impose "a comparable burden on the right of armed self-defense." …

Doubtless, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) embodies salutary policy goals meant to protect vulnerable people in our society. Weighing those policy goals' merits through the sort of means-end scrutiny our prior precedent indulged, we previously concluded that the societal benefits of § 922(g)(8) outweighed its burden on Rahimi's Second Amendment rights. But Bruen forecloses any such analysis in favor of a historical analogical inquiry into the scope of the allowable burden on the Second Amendment right. Through that lens, we conclude that § 922(g)(8)'s ban on possession of firearms is an "outlier[] that our ancestors would never have accepted." …

Judge Ho joined the majority but concurred; an excerpt:

I write separately to point out that our Founders firmly believed in the fundamental role of government in protecting citizens against violence, as well as the individual right to keep and bear arms—and that these two principles are not inconsistent but entirely compatible with one another.

Our Founders understood that those who commit or threaten violence against innocent law-abiding citizens may be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. They knew that arrest and incarceration naturally entails the loss of a wide range of liberties—including the loss of access to arms. {See, e.g., Chimel v. California (1969) ("When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape."); State v. Buzzard (Ark. 1842) (Ringo, C.J.) ("Persons accused of crime, upon their arrest, have constantly been divested of their arms, without the legality of the act having ever been questioned.").}

So when the government detains—and thereby disarms—a member of our community, it must do so consistent with the fundamental protections that our Constitution affords to those accused of a crime. For example, the government may detain dangerous criminals, not just after conviction, but also before trial. Pre-trial detention is expressly contemplated by the Excessive Bail Clause and the Speedy Trial Clause. And it no doubt plays a significant role in protecting innocent citizens against violence. See, e.g., United States v. Salerno (1987) (permitting "the detention prior to trial of arrestees charged with serious felonies who … pose a threat to the safety of individuals or to the community").

Our laws also contemplate the incarceration of those who criminally threaten, but have not (yet) committed, violence. After all, to the victim, such actions are not only life-threatening—they're life-altering.

In sum, our Founders envisioned a nation in which both citizen and sovereign alike play important roles in protecting the innocent against violent criminals. Our decision today is consistent with that vision….