31 Jan

Justices Put Gun Limits in the Cross Hairs

Opinion Justices Put Gun Limits in the Cross Hairs

The McGlynn Comment: In plain Irish to Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Samuel Alito Jr.and Justice Brett Kavanaugh—–téigh go dtí ifreann


Is there a more enigmatic and oddly phrased passage in the Constitution than the Second Amendment? “A well-regulated militia” — there’s no consensus on what this meant 200 years ago, much less now — “being necessary to the security of a free state” — were the framers talking about collective defense or self-defense? — “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” — bear arms like a soldier? — “shall not be infringed.” Yet, despite serious questions about the breadth of the amendment’s protections, at least four Supreme Court justices seem ready to consider what had until recently been a maximalist position: that it guarantees Americans a broadly unrestricted right to gun ownership. For 217 years, the opacity of the Second Amendment kept the Supreme Court from affirming that its text gave Americans as individuals, not as militia members, the right to have a gun. The arrival of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year may have shifted the balance on the court. He joins other justices who have expressed absolutist views on the Second Amendment — Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Samuel Alito Jr.

Last week the court agreed to hear a case from New York City that would allow the justices to decide whether the right to bear arms is, as Thomas complained last year, a “constitutional orphan.” On the surface, the case, which the justices will hear in the session that begins in October, seems inconsequential. Three New Yorkers are challenging a rule that permits people with a license for a gun on a particular premise, like the owner’s home, to take it only to one of the seven shooting ranges in the city. That means no trips to shooting ranges or vacation homes upstate or to New Jersey. Could the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc use the case to declare that a gun owner has a constitutional right to carry a handgun anywhere outside the home, sensible limits be damned? Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has, at times, played the role of centrist, and he may turn out to be a moderating force in keeping that from happening. But the case could also significantly broaden gun rights, smack in the middle of the 2020 election campaign. This seemingly minor case shows that even moderate gun safety measures are at risk.

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