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Clarence Thomas's Gun Control Snare
Step back first. The way courts typically evaluate laws that putatively infringe on a constitutional right was through an analysis called strict scrutiny. Basically, take any constitutional guarantee (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”) and add an “…unless it has a really good reason!” exception. This isn’t an exaggeration. Courts were allowed to give the government a free pass on constitutional infringements provided the state’s efforts were “narrowly tailored” and “necessary” to achieve a “compelling state interest”.
But what counts as a compelling reason? Who decides which laws are narrowly tailored? It’s judges, all the way down. For something like freedom of speech, there’s a robust enough appreciation that you can expect a reasonable amount of skepticism among the judicial corps against efforts by the government to muzzle expression. In practice, strict scrutiny generally functioned as decently high threshold, unlike its contrasting rational basis test which practically was a free pass for the government to do whatever.
But what about topics a little more heated, like guns? Judges have been squishier and far more willing to accept the government’s justifications that a given legal restrictions was “necessary”. Hell, some judges even weaseled their way into ditching strict scrutiny in favor of the more permissible intermediate scrutiny. Judge VanDyke of the 9th Circuit lampooned this doormat reflex in his 2022 McDougall dissent (cleaned up):
Our circuit has ruled on dozens of Second Amendment cases, and without fail has ultimately blessed every gun regulation challenged, so we shouldn’t expect anything less here. As I’ve recently explained, our circuit can uphold any and every gun regulation because our current Second Amendment framework is exceptionally malleable and essentially equates to rational basis review.
The cases VanDyke cited illustrate the problem well. The 9th Circuit has ruled it’s ok to require people to demonstrate either “good cause” or “urgency or need” to the government before they’re allowed to carry a gun outside their home. Set aside whatever negative sentiments you might have about guns, and instead imagine the reaction if similar restrictions were imposed on newspaper licenses. Imagine having to convince a cop that you have “good cause” to start a blog. Constitutional guarantees are worthless if they’re predicated on a government agent agreeing that your reason for exercising them is good enough.
The practice of circuit judges shrugging off challenges to gun control laws with “I don’t know man this seems totally reasonable to me” went on for several years, and I can only imagine it pissed off the pro-2A wing of the Supreme Court. Sure, Trump’s appointments eventually meant they had the numbers on their side and so a very favorable 2A opinion was inevitable, but a stern rebuke of “We really mean it this time!” didn’t seem like it was going to work in getting the circuit courts to stop fucking around.
So when they finally got their chance, SCOTUS tried a different approach. Instead of just triple-underlining and double-highlighting the words STRICT SCRUTINY, Clarence Thomas writes the majority opinion that created a brand new analysis wholly unique to the Second Amendment: gun control laws can only be constitutionally permissible if they’re consistent with “historical tradition of firearm regulation.” Any law being evaluated must therefore have a historical analogue, and the closer the analogue was to the year 1791 (when 2A was ratified), the better.
I was thrilled with Bruen’s result, but puzzled by its reasoning because it seemed to just recreate the circumstances that led to the “fake strict scrutiny” problem. It turns out Bruen had way more of an effect than I anticipated. Clarence Thomas is a fascinating figure in many ways, in part because he’s the most powerful black man in America, and a conservative who just happens to draw direct inspiration from the black nationalism Malcolm X espoused. I have no idea if this was intentional, but Thomas laid out a beautiful carpet of caltrops that the government couldn’t help but step on over and over again.
What followed Bruen was a litigation maelstrom. Government attorneys across the land scoured dusty historical tomes, in search of whatever they could get their hands on and use as justification. The first problem they ran into was there just weren’t that many laws on the books around the time of the Founding, let alone laws that specifically governed firearms. Generally speaking, Americans were free to strut about town with their muskets in tow, no questions asked. The lawyers had to cast a ever-wider net to snag anything relevant, desperately expanding their search way beyond 1791 to include things like an English prohibition on “launcegays” from 1383. When they did find timely laws, they ran into a second and far more pressing problem: the laws regulating firearm possession were…awkward. Really awkward.
Judge Benitez overseeing the ongoing Duncan case ordered the state lawyers to compile a list of every single relevant law they could find, and the 56-page spreadsheet they created is incredible. It’s not surprising to find governments actively disarming disfavored groups, it’s another to see the arbitrariness outlined so starkly. Modern gun control critics have regularly pointed out how skewed enforcement can be, particularly along racial lines. And because Bruen requires historical analogues, lawyers defending gun control restrictions had no choice but to immerse themselves unhappily within its sordid origin story.
Numerous early laws specifically prohibited only “negroes, mulattos, or Indians” from carrying firearms (1792 Virginia law, 1791 Delaware law, 1798 Kentucky law, etc.), or specifically targeted only slaves (1804 Indiana law, 1804 Mississippi law, 1818 Missouri law, etc.). California had it out particularly for those with “Spanish and Indian blood” (aka what the law called ‘Greasers’) and prohibited them from possessing firearms in 1855. These are all laws favorably cited in courts today. It’s comical that in the rare instances early legislatures got off their ass to pass gun laws, literally their only concern often was making sure black people were disarmed and defenseless. Bruen deputized gun control advocates, and forced them to loudly broadcast this humiliating history.
When tasked to defend §922(g)(3), the law that prohibits anyone who is an “unlawful user” of a controlled substance from owning a gun, government lawyers tried their best with what little they had. The closest analogues they could find were colonial laws that prohibited actively drunk people, “dangerous lunatics”, or what they termed “unvirtuous citizens” from possessing a gun. And you know that’s BASICALLY the same thing as preventing the occasional marijuana smoker today from ever having a gun. The judge wasn’t convinced.
After languishing in a stalemate for decades, the legal precedent around gun laws has dramatically changed in very quick order thanks to Bruen. Prohibitions on drug users were struck down, a (limited) prohibition for non-violent felons was struck down, and so were prohibitions on individuals subject to domestic-violence restraining orders (for now…). Courts are normally slow to move, but these developments have happened at blazing speed, and it’s only the beginning as there’s still plenty of ongoing litigation.
None of this means that gun control advocates have given up, far from it! Gattsuru has extensively catalogued numerous ways anti-gun politicians and judges putting in absolutely heroic efforts to gum up the machinery, however they can. Judge VanDyke publicly accused his colleagues on the 9th Circuit of some robe & dagger procedural shenanigans putting the thumb on the scale in the Duncan case. Meanwhile, legislation of dubious constitutionality gets passed faster than it can be struck down and the NYPD is somehow approving fewer gun permits than before (maybe because their approval stamp fell behind a desk, or something?). The efforts Gattsuru highlighted are definitely a hurdle but we’ll see if they’re the beginning of a new stalemate, or just desperate cadaveric spasms. For now, I’m going to continue enjoying the spectacle of government lawyers arguing with a straight face to a judge that pot smokers are the historical equivalent of dangerous lunatics.