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Friday, May 09, 2003

The "Smelly" Second Amendment, Part II.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to read a blunt accusation of elite prejudice on the subject in, of all places, a recent federal court opinion: Silveira v. Lockyer (sorry, requires Acrobat Reader). Unfortunately, it was a dissenting opinion, but it was still heartening. It was written by 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, a superb jurist with a flair for writing and a puckish sense of humor. Make sure you check out his "Lawsuit, Shmawsuit", which documents the use of Yiddish in court opinions, including a brutal use of "schmuck."

In Silveira, the 9th Circuit rejected the individual rights interpretation of the Amendment, and Judge Kozinski cuffed the federal bench in response, in what can only be described as a tour de force:

Judges know very well how to read the Constitution broadly when they are sympathetic to the right being asserted. We have held, without much ado, that “speech, or . . . the press” also means the Internet, see Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997), and that “persons, houses, papers, and effects” also means public telephone booths, see Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). When a particular right comports especially well with our notions of good social policy, we build magnificent legal edifices on elliptical constitutional phrases—or even the white spaces between lines of constitutional text. See, e.g., Compassion in Dying v. Washington, 79 F.3d 790 (9th Cir. 1996) (en banc), rev’d sub nom. Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997). But, as the panel amply demonstrates, when we’re none too keen on a particular constitutional guarantee, we can be equally ingenious in burying language that is incontrovertibly there.

It is wrong to use some constitutional provisions as springboards for major social change while treating others like senile relatives to be cooped up in a nursing home until they quit annoying us. As guardians of the Constitution, we must be consistent in interpreting its provisions. If we adopt a jurisprudence sympathetic to individual rights, we must give broad compass to all constitutional provisions that protect individuals from tyranny.


Then the Judge breaks out the whuppin' stick, and cites the dismal record of American and world history:

The majority falls prey to the delusion—popular in some circles—that ordinary people are too careless and stupid to own guns, and we would be far better off leaving all weapons in the hands of professionals on the government payroll. But the simple truth—born of experience—is that tyranny thrives best where government need not fear the wrath of an armed people. Our own sorry history bears this out: Disarmament was the tool of choice for subjugating both slaves and free blacks in the South. In Florida, patrols searched blacks’ homes for weapons, confiscated those found and punished their owners without judicial process. See Robert J. Cottrol & Raymond T. Diamond, The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration, 80 Geo. L.J. 309, 338 (1991). In the North, by contrast, blacks exercised their right to bear arms to defend against racial mob violence. Id. at 341-42. As Chief Justice Taney well appreciated, the institution of slavery required a class of people who lacked the means to resist. See Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 417 (1857) (finding black citizenship unthinkable because it would give blacks the right to “keep and carry arms wherever they went”). A revolt by Nat Turner and a few dozen other armed blacks could be put down without much difficulty; one by four million armed blacks would have meant big trouble. All too many of the other great tragedies of history—Stalin’s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few—were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece, as the Militia Act required here. See Kleinfeld Dissent at 5997-99. If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars. My excellent colleagues have forgotten these bitter lessons of history. The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late.

Finally, he comes to the basis for the Amendment, crafted by men who did not believe America was immune to the tide of history or human nature:

The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed—where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.

Fortunately, the Framers were wise enough to entrench the right of the people to keep and bear arms within our constitutional structure. The purpose and importance of that right was still fresh in their minds, and they spelled it out clearly so it would not be forgotten. Despite the panel’s mighty struggle to erase these words, they remain, and the people themselves can read what they say plainly enough:

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.


It is the rare opinion that is not cluttered with technical verbiage. The same goes for Judge Kleinfeld's dissent, which also packs a few zingers. Read them both.

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