In 2008, the Supreme Court issued its momentous decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. Until then, the meaning of the Second Amendment had been cloudy for many years. Gun control partisans argued that all it did was to protect a “collective” right to keep and bear arms (militia, the police) but not any right for individuals to do so.
Thus, state and local gun controls laws, no matter how strict, were constitutional.
Advocates for the right of individual ownership argued that the Second Amendment didn’t make sense under that reading. Sheldon Richman, for one, made that case here.
In Heller, a resident of the District of Columbia (Dick Heller) contended that the District’s law that prevented him from having a handgun in his home for self-protection violated his rights under the Second Amendment. (Strangely enough, Heller was paid to provide armed security at the Thurgood Marshall Center during the day, but was prevented from having a weapon at the ready in case he needed to defend himself at night.)
Did he have any rights, though? In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that he did.
The Court held that the District’s prohibition against handguns and its law that any other gun must either be kept disassembled or with a trigger lock violated Heller’s constitutional rights to keep firearms for self-defense.
A key element in Heller was the dispute over trigger locks. Was it a reasonable regulation to mandate them?
Arguing the case for the District, former solicitor general Walter Dellinger maintained that he could remove a trigger lock within three seconds. But Chief Justice Roberts didn’t think that was relevant, pointing out that someone awakened in the middle of the night by frightening sounds probably wouldn’t be able to do it nearly so quickly – and seconds might make the difference between life and death.
All that is background to a recent case, Jackson v. San Francisco.
A San Francisco ordinance dating from 2007 requires that any handgun kept in a home “be stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock.” Six residents led by Espanola Jackson challenged the legality of that ordinance under Heller. Their complaint stated that the law means “law abiding individuals must render their handguns inoperable or inaccessible precisely when they are needed most….”
You might think that the San Francisco law would fare just the same as did the District of Columbia’s – but you’d be mistaken. The federal district court ruled in favor of the city, and on appeal, so did the Ninth Circuit.
Writing that court’s opinion, Judge Ikuta stated that although the law’s requirements certainly could make self-defense more difficult for an elderly woman like Ms. Jackson, (who testified: “I would have to turn on the light, find my glasses, find the key to the lockbox, insert the key in the lock and unlock the box under the stress of the emergency, and then get my gun before being in position to defend myself. That is not an easy task at my age”) that consideration was outweighed by the city’s interest “in preventing firearms from being stolen and in reducing the number of handgun-related suicides and deadly domestic violence incidents.”
Therefore, the law stood and if Ms. Jackson or anyone else were to be found out of compliance, the city could impose a punishment of up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Over and over, we have seen the courts whittle away at our constitutional rights with “balancing” arguments like Judge Ikuta’s — arguments that almost always come out in favor of the officials doing the whittling. Public officials who probably perceive little or no personal danger get to tell citizens who do perceive such danger how they must behave. There’s something wrong with that picture.
But surely the Supreme Court would step in since Jackson looks inconsistent with Heller.
No. It chose not to grant certiorari, which means that it lets the Ninth Circuit ruling stand. Apparently a majority on the Court is not willing to fight Second Amendment battles to preserve the rights it protected in Heller.
Justice Thomas filed a strong dissent (available here – scroll down to the bottom) from the refusal to grant cert, arguing that the conditions San Francisco imposes on gun owners undermine their Second Amendment rights. Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, writes that the ordinance “burdens [residents’] right to self-defense at the times they are most vulnerable – when they are sleeping, bathing, changing clothes, or otherwise indisposed.” He finds the Ninth Circuit decision “in serious tension with Heller.”
It certainly appears to be.
Seven justices, however, were content to let San Francisco continue dictating the conditions under which citizens who have firearms for safety must keep them. That holding will undoubtedly embolden the anti-gun forces to impose further conditions on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
It simply isn’t possible to keep guns and other deadly weapons out of the hands of crazed and vicious individuals. The law should stop making it unnecessarily difficult for people who suddenly find that they must defend themselves to do so.