The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms. For hundreds of years, courts interpreted this right to be connected to service in a militia. This changed in 2008, when the United States Supreme Court, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller ruled that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to own firearms, separate from any service in a militia.
More recently, in June 2022, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, the US Supreme Court struck down a New York handgun-licensing law that required New Yorkers who want to carry a handgun in public to show a special need to defend themselves. In deciding Bruen, the Supreme Court struck down a two-part test typically used to determine the constitutionality of laws restricting gun ownership. That two-part test first looked at whether the law in question actually infringed on a right protected by the SecondAmendment. If it did, the Court was next to determine if the law was necessary to advance a significant public interest. If it was, the law was deemed constitutional; if not, it was deemed unconstitutional.
The Bruen decision set forth a new test, whether the law in question is consistent with the historical understanding of the Second Amendment. After reviewing centuries of historical data, the Bruen decision concluded that there was no tradition of broad based prohibitions against carrying a firearm in public for the purpose of self defense. Further, the Court concluded there was no history of requiring a person to demonstrate a special need for self defense before being allowed to carry a gun in public for such a purpose.
The consequences of the Bruen decision are just beginning to be felt. In United States v. Rahimi, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a federal law prohibiting individuals subject to a domestic violence restraining order from owning or possessing firearms. In doing so, the Court recognized that prohibiting individuals who engage in domestic violence from possessing firearms may be a laudable goal. Relying on Bruen, the 5th Circuit reasoned that the government must be able to point to analogous, historical restrictions on firearms ownership to justify the law being applied to Rahimi. Ultimately, the Court found that the government failed to demonstrate that restriction of Ramini’s Second Amendment right fit within the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation and declared the restriction unconstitutional.
A federal District Court in West Virginia similarly applied Bruen to a federal law prohibiting the possession of firearms that have the serial number on the gun altered or destroyed. In United States of America v. Randy Price, the District Court reasoned that the crux of the historical inquiry under Bruen is to determine the understanding of the right to bear arms at the time it was enshrined in the Constitution. The District Court found that any modern regulation that does not comport with the historical understanding of this right must be deemed unconstitutional, regardless of how desirable or important that regulation may be in modern society. Like Rahimi before it, the District Court found that the government failed to demonstrate that the prohibition against owning firearms without a serial number fit within the nation’s tradition of firearm regulations.
Bruen was also recently relied upon by a Texas Federal District Court to strike down a federal law prohibiting an individual under criminal indictment from possessing a firearm. Again, the Court noted that, while legitimate public safety concerns may weigh in favor of such a law, under Bruen, the law must be declared unconstitutional because the government failed to demonstrate that restricting an individual under felony indictment, but who have never been convicted of a felony, from obtaining a firearm aligns with the nation's historical traditions surrounding firearms regulations.
The cases cited above are just three of dozens of cases winding their way through the United States courts in the wake of Bruen. It is inevitable that, as legislatures attempt to pass gun control restrictions in the name of public safety and as Second Amendment advocates continue to push back against such laws, that these issues will soon land on the Supreme Court’s docket again.
Have you been denied the right to purchase a firearm or been charged with a crime related to alleged illegal firearms possession? The experienced attorneys at West & Dunn can help. Call us today at 608-535-6420 or send us a message through our Contact Us page.