The United States Supreme Court has only three times commented upon the meaning of the second amendment to our constitution. The first comment, in Dred Scott, indicated strongly that the right to keep and bear arms was an individual right; the Court noted that, were it to hold free blacks to be entitled to equality of citizenship, they would be entitled to keep and carry arms wherever they went. The second, in Miller, indicated that a court cannot take judicial notice that a short-barrelled shotgun is covered by the second amendment — but the Court did not indicate that National Guard status is in any way required for protection by that amendment, and indeed defined "militia" to include all citizens able to bear arms. The third, a footnote in Lewis v. United States, indicated only that "these legislative restrictions on the use of firearms" — a ban on possession by felons — were permissable. But since felons may constitutionally be deprived of many of the rights of citizens, including that of voting, this dicta reveals little. These three comments constitute all significant explanations of the scope of the second amendment advanced by our Supreme Court. The case of Adam v. Williams has been cited as contrary to the principle that the second amendment is an individual right. In fact, that reading of the opinion comes only in Justice Douglas's dissent from the majority ruling of the Court.
The appendix which follows represents a listing of twenty-one American decisions, spanning the period from 1822 to 1981, which have analysed right to keep and bear arms provisions in the light of statutes ranging from complete bans on handgun sales to bans on carrying of weapons to regulation of carrying by permit systems. Those decisions not only explained the nature of such a right, but also struck down legislative restrictions as violative of it, are designated by asterisks.
1. * State v. Blacker, 291 Or. 255, — —— P.2d — —— (1981).
"The statute is written as a total proscription of the mere possession of certain weapons, and that mere possession, insofar as a billy is concerned, is constitutionally protected."
"In these circumstances, we conclude that it is proper for us to consider defendant's 'overbreadth' attack to mean that the statute swept so broadly as to infringe rights that it could not reach, which in this setting means the right to possess arms guaranteed by sec 27."
2. * State v. Kessler, 289 Or. 359, 614 P.2d 94, at 95, at 98 (1980).
"We are not unmindful that there is current controversy over the wisdom of a right to bear arms, and that the original motivations for such a provision might not seem compelling if debated as a new issue. Our task, however, in construing a constitutional provision is to respect the principles given the status of constitutional guarantees and limitations by the drafters; it is not to abandon these principles when this fits the needs of the moment."
"Therefore, the term 'arms' as used by the drafters of the constitutions probably was intended to include those weapons used by settlers for both personal and military defense. The term 'arms' was not limited to firearms, but included several handcarried weapons commonly used for defense. The term 'arms' would not have included cannon or other heavy ordnance not kept by militia-men or private citizens."
3. Motley v. Kellogg, 409 N.E.2d 1207, at 1210 (Ind. App. 1980) (motion to transfer denied 1-27-1981).
"[N]ot making applications available at the chiefs office effectively denied members of the community the opportunity to obtain a gun permit and bear arms for their self-defense."
4. Schubert v. DeBard, 398 N.E.2d 1339, at 1341 (Ind. App. 1980) (motion to transfer denied 8-28-1980).
"We think it clear that our constitution provides our citizenry the right to bear arms for their self-defense."
5. Taylor v. McNeal, 523 S.W.2d 148, at 150 (Mo. App. 1975).
"The pistols in question are not contraband. * * * Under Art. I, sec 23, Mo. Const. 1945, V.A.M.S., every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, with the limitation that this section shall not justify the wearing of concealed arms."
6. * City of Lakewood v. Pillow, 180 Colo. 20, 501 P.2d 744, at 745 (en banc 1972).
"As an example, we note that this ordinance would prohibit gunsmiths, pawnbrokers and sporting goods stores from carrying on a substantial part of their business. Also, the ordinance appears to prohibit individuals from transporting guns to and from such places of business. Furthermore, it makes it unlawful for a person to possess a firearm in a vehicle or in a place of business for the purpose of self-defense. Several of these activities are constitutionally protected. Colo. Const. art. II, sec 13."
7. * City of Las Vegas v. Moberg, 82 N.M. 626, 485 P.2d 737, at 738 (N.M. App. 1971). "It is our opinion that an ordinance may not deny the people the constitutionally guaranteed
right to bear arms, and to that extent the ordinance under consideration is void."
8. State v. Nickerson, 126 Mt. 157, 247 P.2d 188, at 192 (1952).
"The law of this jurisdiction accords to the defendant the right to keep and bear arms and to use same in defense of his own home, his person and property."
9. People v. Liss, 406 Ill. 419, 94 N.E. 2d 320, at 323 (1950).
"The second amendment to the constitution of the United States provides the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. This of course does not prevent the enactment of a law against carrying concealed weapons, but it does indicate it should be kept in mind, in the construction of a statute of such character, that it is aimed at persons of criminal instincts, and for the prevention of crime, and not against use in the protection of person or property."
10. * People v. Nakamura, 99 Colo. 262, at 264, 62 P.2d 246 (en banc 1936).
"It is equally clear that the act wholly disarms aliens for all purposes. The state ... cannot disarm any class of persons or deprive them of the right guaranteed under section 13, article II of the Constitution, to bear arms in defense of home, person and property. The guaranty thus extended is meaningless if any person is denied the right to posses arms for such protection."
11.* Glasscock v. City of Chattanooga, 157 Tenn. 518, at 520, 11 S.W. 2d 678 (1928).
"There is no qualifications of the prohibition against the carrying of a pistol in the city ordinance before us but it is made unlawful 'to carry on or about the person any pistol,' that is, any sort of pistol in any sort of manner. *** [W]e must accordingly hold the provision of this ordinance as to the carrying of a pistol invalid."
12. * People v. Zerillo, 219 Mich. 635, 189 N.W. 927, at 928 (1922).
"The provision in the Constitution granting the right to all persons to bear arms is a limitation upon the power of the Legislature to enact any law to the contrary. The exercise of a right guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be made subject to the will of the sheriff."
13 * State v. Kerner, 181 N.C. 574, 107 S.E. 222, at 224 (1921).
"We are of the opinion, however, that 'pistol' ex vi termini is properly included within the word 'arms,' and that the right to bear such arms cannot be infringed. The historical use of pistols as 'arms' of offense and defense is beyond controversy."
"The maintenance of the right to bear arms is a most essential one to every free people and should not be whittled down by technical constructions."
14. * State v. Rosenthal, 75 VT. 295, 55 A. 610, at 611 (1903).
"The people of the state have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state. *** The result is that Ordinance No. 10, so far as it relates to the carrying of a pistol, is inconsistent with and repugnant to the Constitution and the laws of the state, and it is therefore to that extent, void."
15. * In re Brickey, 8 Ida. 597, at 598-99, 70 p. 609 (1902).
"The second amendment to the federal constitution is in the following language: 'A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.' The language of section 11, article I of the constitution of Idaho, is as follows: The people have the right to bear arms for their security and defense, but the legislature shall regulate the exercise of this right by law.' Under these constitutional provisions, the legislature has no power to prohibit a citizen from bearing arms in any portion of the state of Idaho, whether within or without the corporate limits of cities, towns, and villages."
19th century cases
16. * Wilson v. State, 33 Ark. 557, at 560, 34 Am. Rep. 52, at 54 (1878).
"If cowardly and dishonorable men sometimes shoot unarmed men with army pistols or guns, the evil must be prevented by the . penitentiary and gallows, and not by a general deprivation of constitutional privilege."
17. * Jennings v. State, 5 Tex. Crim. App. 298, at 300-01 (1878).
"We believe that portion of the act which provides that, in case of conviction, the defendant shall forfeit to the county the weapon or weapons so found on or about his person is not within the scope of legislative authority. * * * One of his most sacred rights is that of having arms for his own defence and that of the State. This right is one of the surest safeguards of liberty and self-preservation."
18. * Andrews v. State, 50 Tenn. 165, 8 Am. Rep. 8, at 17 (1871).
"The passage from Story shows clearly that this right was intended, as we have maintained in this opinion, and was guaranteed to and to be exercised and enjoyed by the citizen as such, and not by him as a soldier, or in defense solely of his political rights."
19. * Nunn v. State, 1 Ga. (1 Kel.) 243, at 251 (1846).
"The right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.' The right of the whole people, old and young, men, women and boys, and not militia only, to keep and bear arms of every description, and not such merely as are used by the militia, shall not be infringed, curtailed, or broken in upon, in the smallest degree; and all this for the important end to be attained: the rearing up and qualifying a well-regulated militia, so vitally necessary to the security of a free State."
20. Simpson v. State, 13 Tenn. 356, at 359-60 (1833).
"But suppose it to be assumed on any ground, that our ancestors adopted and brought over with them this English statute, [the statute of Northampton,] or portion of the common law, our constitution has completely abrogated it; it says, 'that the freemen of this State have a right to keep and bear arms for their common defence.' Article II, sec. 26. * * * By this clause of the constitution,
an express power is given and secured to all the free citizens of the State to keep and bear arms for their defence, without any qualification whatever as to their kind or nature; and it is conceived, that it would be going much too far, to impair by construction or abridgement a constitutional privilege, which is so declared; neither, after so solumn an instrument hath said the people may carry arms, can we be permitted to impute to the acts thus licensed, such a necessarily consequent operation as terror to the people to be incurred thereby; we must attribute to the framers of it, the absence of such a view."
21. Bliss v. Commonwealth, 12 Ky. (2 Litt.) 90, at 92, and 93, 13 Am. Dec. 251 (1822).
"For, in principle, there is no difference between a law prohibiting the wearing concealed arms, and a law forbidding the wearing such as are exposed; and if the former be unconstitutional, the latter must be so likewise."
"But it should not be forgotten, that it is not only a part of the right that is secured by the constitution; it is the right entire and complete, as it existed at the adoption of the constitution; and if any portion of that right be impaired, immaterial how small the part may be, and immaterial the order of time at which it be done, it is equally forbidden by the constitution."
The following represents a list of twelve scholarly articles which have dealt with the subject of the right to keep and bear arms as reflected in the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The scholars who have undertaken this research range from professors of law, history and philosophy to a United States Senator. All have concluded that the second amendment is an individual right protecting American citizens in their peaceful use of firearms.
Hays, THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, A STUDY IN JUDICIAL MISINTERPRETATION, 2 Wm.
& Mary L.R. 381 (1960)
Sprecher, THE LOST AMENDMENT, 51 Am. Bar Assn. J. 554 & 665 (2 parts) (1965) Comment, THE RIGHT TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS; A NECESSARY CONSTITUTIONAL
GUARANTEE OR AN OUTMODED PROVISION OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS? 31 Albany L.R. 74 (1967) Levine & Saxe, THE SECOND AMENDMENT: THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, 7 Houston L. R.
McClure, FIREARMS AND FEDERALISM, 7 Idaho L. R. 197 (1970)
Hardy & Stompoly, OF ARMS AND THE LAW, 51 Chi.-Kent L. R. 62 (1974)
Weiss, A REPLY TO ADVOCATES OF GUN CONTROL LAW, 52 Jour. Urban Law 577 (1974)
Whisker, HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT AND SUBSEQUENT EROSION OF THE RIGHT TO
Caplan, RESTORING THE BALANCE: THE SECOND AMENDMENT REVISITED, 5 Fordham
Urban L.J. 31 (1976)
Caplan, HANDGUN CONTROL: CONSTITUTIONAL OR UNCONSTITUTIONAL?, 10 N.C.
Central L.J. 53 (1979)
Cantrell, THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, 53 Wis. Bar Bull. 21 (Oct. 1980)
Halbrook, THE JURISPRUDENCE OF THE SECOND AND FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS,
4 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1 (1981)
ENFORCEMENT OF FEDERAL FIREARMS LAWS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SECOND AMENDMENT
Federal involvement in firearms possession and transfer was not significant prior to 1934, when the National Firearms Act was adopted. The National Firearms Act as adopted covered only fully automatic weapons (machine guns and submachine guns) and rifles and shotguns whose barrel length or overall length fell below certain limits. Since the Act was adopted under the revenue power, sale of these firearms was not made subject to a ban or permit system. Instead, each transfer was made subject to a $200 excise tax, which must be paid prior to transfer; the identification of the parties to the transfer indirectly accomplished a registration purpose.
The 1934 Act was followed by the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which placed some limitations upon sale of ordinary firearms. Persons engaged in the business of selling those firearms in interstate commerce were required to obtain a Federal Firearms License, at an annual cost of $1, and to maintain records of the name and address of persons to whom they sold firearms. Sales to persons convicted of violent felonies were prohibited, as were interstate shipments to persons who lacked the permits required by the law of their state.
Thirty years after adoption of the Federal Firearms Act, the Gun Control Act of 1968 worked a major revision of federal law. The Gun Control Act was actually a composite of two statutes. The first of these, adopted as portions of the Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act, imposed limitations upon imported firearms, expanded the requirement of dealer licensing to cover anyone "engaged in the business of dealing" in firearms, whether in interstate or local commerce, and expanded the recordkeeping obligations for dealers. It also imposed a variety of direct limitations upon sales of handguns. No transfers were to be permitted between residents of different states (unless the recipient was a federally licensed dealer), even where the transfer was by gift rather than sale and even where the recipient was subject to no state law which could have been evaded. The category of persons to whom dealers could not sell was expanded to cover persons convicted of any felony (other than certain business-related felonies such as antitrust violations), persons subject to a mental commitment order or finding of mental incompetence, persons who were users of marijuana and other drugs, and a number of other categories. Another title of the Act defined persons who were banned from possessing firearms. Paradoxically, these classes were not identical with the list of classes prohibited from purchasing or receiving firearms.
The Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act was passed on June 5, 1968, and set to take effect in December of that year. Barely two weeks after its passage, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for the presidency. Less than a week after his death, the second bill which would form part of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was introduced in the House. It was reported out of Judiciary ten days later, out of Rules Committee two weeks after that, and was on the floor barely a month after its introduction, the second bill worked a variety of changes upon the original Gun Control Act. Most significantly, it extended to rifles and shotguns the controls which had been imposed solely on handguns, extended the class of persons prohibited from possessing firearms to include those who were users of marijuana and certain other drugs, expanded judicial review of dealer license revocations by mandating a de novo hearing once an appeal was taken, and permitted interstate sales of rifles and shotguns only where the parties resided in contiguous states, both of which had enacted legislation permitting such sales. Similar legislation was passed by the Senate and a conference of the Houses produced a bill which was essentially a modification of the
House statute. This became law before the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, and was therefore set for the same effective date.
Enforcement of the 1968 Act was delegated to the Department of the Treasury, which had been responsible for enforcing the earlier gun legislation. This responsibility was in turn given to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service. This division had traditionally devoted itself to the pursuit of illegal producers of alcohol; at the time of enactment of the Gun Control Act, only 8.3 percent of its arrests were for firearms violations. Following enactment of the Gun Control Act the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division was retitled the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division of the IRS. By July, 1972 it had nearly doubled in size and became a complete Treasury bureau under the name of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The mid-1970's saw rapid increases in sugar prices, and these in turn drove the bulk of the "moonshiners" out of business. Over 15,000 illegal distilleries had been raided in 1956; but by 1976 this had fallen to a mere 609. The BATF thus began to devote the bulk of its efforts to the area of firearms law enforcement.
Complaints regarding the techniques used by the Bureau in an effort to generate firearms cases led to hearings before the Subcommittee on Treasury, Post Office, and General Appropriations of the Senate Appropriations Committee in July 1979 and April 1980, and before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1980. At these hearings evidence was received from various citizens who had been charged by BATF, from experts who had studied the BATF, and from officials of the Bureau itself.
Based upon these hearings, it is apparent that enforcement tactics made possible by current federal firearms laws are constitutionally, legally, and practically reprehensible. Although Congress adopted the Gun Control Act with the primary object of limiting access of felons and high-risk groups to firearms, the overbreadth of the law has led to neglect of precisely this area of enforcement. For example the Subcommittee on the Constitution received correspondence from two members of the Illinois Judiciary, dated in 1980, indicating that they had been totally unable to persuade BATF to accept cases against felons who were in possession of firearms including sawed-off shotguns. The Bureau's own figures demonstrate that in recent years the percentage of its arrests devoted to felons in possession and persons knowingly selling to them have dropped from 14 percent down to 10 percent of their firearms cases. To be sure, genuine criminals are sometimes prosecuted under other sections of the law. Yet, subsequent to these hearings, BATF stated that 55 percent of its gun law prosecutions overall involve persons with no record of a felony conviction, and a third involve citizens with no prior police contact at all.