The California Supreme Court and the Second Amendment
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Any American resident would know the headlines of at least a few of the following events: Las Vegas. Parkland. Sandy Hook, Columbine. The Orlando Nightclub Shooting. The Isla Vista shooting. The Aurora shooting. The increased frequency of mass gun violence has led to increased fear throughout the nation, and the desire for change has been brought up again and again.
Naturally, the awareness of gun violence has led to a call to action sweeping the nation to restrict gun access. There is a definite feeling of alarm in many Americans, and conversely, a reactionary feeling of being attacked felt by those that defend their Constitutional right to bear arms. The debate of guns, their laws, and their implications is a critical one - and particularly in California, this debate has grown to encompass the state Supreme Court to become a multifaceted topic containing layers of history.
The institution of firearms (which, by many, is linked with the GOP both ideologically and financially) is particularly challenged in the blue state of California. Here, certain second amendment issues constantly resurface: namely, in the area of state jurisdiction versus Constitutional rights. Some citizens feel that particular California laws infringe on the Second Amendment rights ensured to them by the United States Constitution. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have raised the topic of state sovereignty.
The Second Amendment and the right to bear arms has long been a controversial concept. The uprising of gun violence awareness, the public outcry of the National Rifle Association, and recent heavily publicized shootings have raised the issue frequently: should gun laws be more restrictive? Should the Second Amendment be protected or amended? Do guns belong in private possession? Why are these lethal weapons easily accessible? What benefits arrive from gun rights?
And most of all, to what extent does California’s policies have the right to push the line of Californians’ Second Amendment rights?
To know this, there are certain points of information that need to be known in order to form a well-informed opinion: Constitutional rights, current gun laws, and select Supreme Court rulings.
The Second Amendment itself states that:
“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.”
One of the points of contention within the genre of rights is the scope of this rule: to what extent does it allow American people to “bear arms”? One way to look at this is to compile precedents that have been established over the course of American history, by the third branch of government charged with interpreting the law: the Judiciary. The judicial review and interpretation of the second amendment set precedents about the people’s rights under the federal government.
The first foundational Supreme Court ruling on guns was U.S. v. Cruikshank, in 1876 - a ruling that essentially declared that the Second Amendment protected citizens from having their rights violated by the federal government, and did not generally apply to state and private matters. This arose out of the Colfax Massacre, which occurred in 1873, where white men armed with guns killed over 100 black men. The Supreme Court reviewed the accused men’s challenges of their sentences, and agreed, citing that the 1870 Enforcement Act was not applicable to the men - saying in their statement “The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government”. This set certain standards about the state government’s jurisdiction - namely, the Second Amendment was not invokable in the state courts, being only a limit to prevent federal overstepping of rights.
Another landmark decision was made in the case District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 ruling, that made a statement about gun ownership in homes, in the context of whether or not the Second Amendment pertained exclusively to the maintenance of a militia, particularly police. This original dispute came from a set of restrictive policies in the District of Columbia, including a ban on owning unregistered handguns and the illegality of registering one. The decision included “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” It established that one should have the right to own a gun in the home for uses such as self-defense, and the statement effectively declared the District of Columbia’s laws to be unconstitutional.
What’s the impact of these cases, especially today? Two particular cases in California were denied a hearing by the United States Supreme Court this year, meaning the Federal Court upheld the decisions of the California courts. The affirmation of these decisions are controversial but nevertheless show the current state of state-versus-federal opinions on Second Amendment rights, and relate to cases of the past in defining what falls under state or federal interpretation of gun policy.
The first case’s plaintiff accused the California ten-day gun purchase waiting period as unconstitutional, some advocates of the case citing that the waiting period hinders those already have permits or licenses. On the other hand, the intention of the policy is to prevent impulsive violence - the waiting period to buffer those that may want to orchestrate shootings or other mediums of gun violence. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case upheld the California law and therefore approved it (or at least permitted it) as constitutional.
The second case is similar to District of Columbia v. Heller: The context surrounding the case pertains to police and an individual’s right to carry concealed firearms. The plaintiffs held that the California law allowing California sheriffs to issue concealed carry gun licenses under “good cause” was unconstitutional - because their local sheriff had denied them licenses but issued them to ‘friends, donors and supporters”. They argued that the denial of their licenses infringed on their Second Amendment rights. But District of Columbia v. Heller did not cover the concealed carry element of this particular case, leaving the final decision of the Supreme Court to reject this case to be interpreted as agreeing with the district court: the Second Amendment doesn’t protect the right of the general public to carry concealed guns.
These two California cases, both rejected by the Supreme Court, show a repeating trend of avoiding Second Amendment cases. Additionally, the decisions reinforce the moving American activism to increasingly tighten restrictions on guns (even though the California laws themselves were not necessarily passed recently). To the ten-day wait case, Justice Clarence Thomas commented that "the 2nd Amendment is a disfavored right in this court." Put simply - even a justice in the Supreme Court acknowledges that Second Amendment cases keep getting ignored.
So, can the questions ultimately be answered - to what extent does California’s policies have the right to push the line of Californians’ Second Amendment rights? In the status quo, and with the trends of the Supreme Court continuing, California’s policies will continue to remain unchallenged. Others still may cite cases such as U.S. v. Cruikshank when they argue that state courts can avoid the application of the Constitution.
California maintains its gun laws. But what the future holds is both up to the Court and the people of the US. Regardless, guns remain debated and their restrictions are argued for and against. What do the California laws mean to you? Is the federal court evading the application of a critical right? Are citizens being oppressed by California or kept safe by the Supreme Court?