Not a Bang, But a Whimper
I'm going through Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion now, and one thing that leaps out at me is the careful way he limits the scope of the court's decision. He carves out two very important limitations on the 2nd Amendment's firearms right -- exceptions so big that they encompass nearly all gun control in existence today, save those most extreme bans like that in D.C.:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.... For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues.... Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should 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, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those "in common use at the time." 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of "dangerous and unusual weapons." [cites omitted]
It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service--M-16 rifles and the like--may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment's ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
So, if I understand this right, Scalia's got no beef with "felon in possession" statutes like those at the heart of the Justice Department's Project Safe Neighborhoods strategy. He's got no beef with states banning assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other instruments of violence that are firearms but maybe just a tad bit dangerous for you or me to keep and bear. And he seems cool with background checks, registration and waiting periods.
There may be a national security point here, too, to the extent that many federal anti-terrorism statutes revolve around the use, possession or development of explosives, firearms and other dangerous materials. Scalia undoubtedly knows this and wants to preserve law enforcement's abilities to go after that stuff.
If I'm adding up the scorecard right, that means most federal, state and local gun control in America survives Heller. And so, gun rights advocates get to notch their buttstocks with an important symbolic victory. But ultimately, the part of Justice Scalia that respects law enforcement's needs may have won the day -- because gun control will remain alive and well in America in the wake of this decision.
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