Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Categorically Not a Person? Sounds Like Texas!

Here, in full, is the text of the Second Amendment: "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 meaning and application of this provision comes before the Supreme Court this year in the Heller case, and I think the case may result in a number of surprising outcomes. One such outcome that surprises me comes from the US government's brief filed late last week.

As detailed in this SCOTUSblog post, through the filing of this amicus brief, the "Bush Administration urged the Supreme Court Friday night to rule that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have a gun for private use." Though this amicus brief is full of interesting points, I was taken aback by this assertion: "the Second Amendment, properly construed, ... does not provide any protections to certain individuals, such as convicted felons, who have never been understood to be within the Amendment’s coverage." In other words, it seems that the US government is arguing that "the people" referenced in the Second Amendment's text does not include any of the millions of Americans with a felony conviction.

Notably, the Bill of Rights uses the phrase "the people" in four other Amendments (the First, Fourth, Ninth and Tenth). I have never before heard a claim that all convicted felons are categorically denied the individual rights protected by all these Amendments. The Fourth Amendment, notably, speaks of the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Supreme Court has never suggested that individuals, once convicted of a felony, thereafter cannot assert Fourth Amendment rights. (The Supreme Court has held that searches of prisoners and paroles can be reasonable even without any individualized suspicion; but such rulings are a far cry from suggesting that all convicted felons are no longer among "the people" who have rights under the Fourth Amendment.)

I find notable and telling the US government's need to take such a blunderbuss approach (pun intended) when seeking to limit the reach of Second Amendment rights. The government's brief confirms my instinct that, if an individual-right genie emerges from Heller, it may prove quite hard to get Second Amendment rights back into the regulatory bottle.


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