Fun With Guns
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in McDonald v. Chicago, otherwise known as the Chicago gun ban case. The court’s decision in this case will determine whether the Fourteenth Amendment means that the Second Amendment right to bear arms should prevent state and local governments from prohibiting citizens’ possession of functional firearms in their homes.
This is a very, very important case — but maybe not for readily apparent reasons. The central question is not so much the meaning of the Second Amendment — that was largely decided by last year’s D.C. gun ban case. Rather, this case concerns the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.
When it was drafted and ratified, the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to do several things: First, to ensure that United States citizenship would be universal for those born within the country, and that no state could deny state citizenship to someone who is an American citizen; this was a pressing concern given that the recently Confederate states might well have denied citizenship to freed slaves. Second, to ensure that all citizens were assured of a certain baseline of liberty that could not be denied by any state or local government, because some state governments, when left to their own devices, had previously refused to offer the same protections for liberty enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Under the new amendment, states were required to afford all U.S. citizens the “privileges and immunities” protected under the U.S. Constitution — including a right to travel freely across state lines, a right to earn a living in a common profession, etc. And, finally, the amendment was intended to ensure that all citizens must be treated equally under the law, so that no state could fashion laws that would discriminate against newly freed slaves or other “outsiders.”
Very shortly after the amendment’s ratification, however, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down The Slaughterhouse Cases. At issue was a law in New Orleans that created a butchering cartel controlled by the city, limiting the number of people permitted to practice the profession. The law made it so that citizens could only practice the profession with the city’s permission, and then only at a time and place of the city’s choosing. The city’s butchers sued, claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment prevented a state or local government from infringing upon their right to practice their profession. The Supreme Court responded with a ruling that the vast majority of legal scholars now consider one of the least-defensible in the court’s history (see p. 11 of the brief in the preceding link).
The court couldn’t negate the provision establishing universal citizenship, but its decision in Slaughterhouse completely eviscerated (so to speak) the other provisions of the first section — leaving the states free to limit access to professions, set up sweetheart deals for favored business interests and industries, institute poll taxes or other requirements that disenfranchised targeted segments of the population, and pass the Jim Crow–era segregation laws. Had the Fourteenth Amendment been properly applied from the outset, there might have been no need for a civil rights movement because segregation would never have been permitted in the first place, and freed slaves (as well as new immigrants) would have had easier access to self employment in entry-level professions.
Over time, the Supreme Court realized the evils that states were perpetrating against their citizens and so they came up with the doctrine of “substantive due process” as a way of selectively applying the Bill of Rights to strike down illegitimate state laws. It’s an absolute legal fabrication, but it has allowed the court to address issues of constitutional freedom in the way it has seen fit, without admitting that the court got Slaughterhouse wrong. So, almost the entire Bill of Rights has now been “incorporated” into the idea of substantive due process (meaning that 140 years later, the court has almost completely accomplished the original purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment), but several of the most important “privileges and immunities” — such as the right to earn a living — remain on the outside looking in. For whatever reason, the court has continued to hesitate in taking the final, proper, liberty-respecting step.
Taking that step would mean that federal courts could strike down state laws in violation of the privileges and immunities that have been neglected for all this time – but that is not only what the Constitution requires, it is inherently a good thing for liberty! Getting the history and constitutional theory correct would simply re-anchor the methods of analysis to their historical underpinnings, instead of allowing the unprincipled free-for-all that sometimes becomes apparent in the way the court addresses constitutional freedoms. I can’t help but think it would be a good thing, both at the philosophical and the practical level.