In 2008 and 2010, the high court struck down ordinances in Washington, D.C., and Chicago that prohibited the private possession of handguns as violations of 2nd Amendment. Americans have a right to have guns at home for self-defense, the court said in 5-4 decisions.
But since then, the justices have turned down gun rights advocates who have sued to challenge gun regulations based on the 2nd Amendment.
"There are simply not four justices who are eager to jump back into this fray," said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, an expert on gun rights. It takes the votes of at least four justices to grant review of a case. "The California case highlights that the gun debate will play out in the legislatures and in Congress."
Most of the reports on this case fail to note who brought the Second Amendment challenge. The case was brought by two California gun owners (and two nonprofits) who argued that the 10-day waiting period was an unconstitutional burden on their right to bear arms. The fact that the petitioners were gun owners served to strengthen their argument that a 10-day period was unnecessary for running a background check (the petitioners had already passed the check on obtaining their other firearms) and for petitioners to "cool down" before purchasing firearms on a violent impulse (the petitioners already owned guns, so if they had violent intentions, they would already be capable of acting on them). Adam Winkler (the law professor quoted in the LA Times article above) raises this point, among others in an informative Twitter thread which begins with the tweet below:
The Supreme Court's refusal to decide whether California's 10-day waiting period is unconstitutional indicates that the majority of justices do not share the NRA's view on the scope of the Second Amendment. https://t.co/b8uG8P3zGi— Adam Winkler (@adamwinkler) February 20, 2018
Winkler's main point in the thread is that the Court is unwilling to take on what may be an easy Second Amendment case. Rather than addressing broad questions of carrying firearms in public, the case was limited to a narrow set of circumstances: a 10-day waiting period on people who already owned guns. Winkler recognizes, however, that the case may not be as strong as the petitioners though, as the fact that they currently own guns means that their ability to defend themselves should not be significantly infringed by a delay in purchasing additional guns.
This case has been drawing attention because it was decided very soon after the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and also because Justice Clarence Thomas authored a lengthy dissent to the Court's decision not to hear the case. Thomas attacks the Ninth Circuit for failing to properly apply intermediate scrutiny to the 10-day waiting period, and argues that the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the restriction based on speculation as to the law's effects and assumptions that the law would not significantly burden firearm purchasers. Thomas criticizes the Court's decision not to hear the case as the latest in a long line of failures to take up Second Amendment cases, arguing that "If a lower court treated another right so cavalierly, I have little doubt that this court would intervene." Those familiar with the Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence got a chuckle out of this proclamation.
I have doubts about the claims Thomas makes in his dissent, largely for Winkler's point that I highlighted above -- that these particular petitioners already own firearms, and therefore can defend themselves with the guns they already have. The Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, held that the right of self-defense is "central" to the Second Amendment's protections, and the petitioners would face an uphill battle in claiming that this right was significantly burdened. Perhaps this is why no other conservative justices joined in Thomas's dissent.
As a final note, Thomas cites to Footnote 27 of the Heller opinion to support his claim that the appropriate level of scrutiny for laws restricting the Second Amendment must be higher than "rational basis" scrutiny. Footnote 27 of Heller states:
Justice BREYER correctly notes that this law, like almost all laws, would pass rational-basis scrutiny. Post, at 2850-2851. But rational-basis scrutiny is a mode of analysis we have used when evaluating laws under constitutional commands that are themselves prohibitions on irrational laws. See, e.g., Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591, 602, 128 S.Ct. 2146, 2153-2154, 2008 WL 2329768, *6-7, 170 L.Ed.2d 975 (2008). In those cases, "rational basis" is not just the standard of scrutiny, but the very substance of the constitutional guarantee. Obviously, the same test could not be used to evaluate the extent to which a legislature may regulate a specific, enumerated right, be it the freedom of speech, the guarantee against double jeopardy, the right to counsel, or the right to keep and bear arms. See United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152, n. 4, 58 S.Ct. 778, 82 L.Ed. 1234 (1938) ("There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality [i.e.,narrower than that provided by rational-basis review] when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten amendments ..."). If all that was required to overcome the right to keep and bear arms was a rational basis, the Second Amendment would be redundant with the separate constitutional prohibitions on irrational laws, and would have no effect.Because the Court in Heller determined that the District of Columbia's firearm restriction would not prevail under any standard of scrutiny, this footnote is dicta, although Thomas cites it as precedent in support of his claim that a level of review higher than rational-basis is required. I have not previously evaluated this footnote at length, although I did locate this commentary by Josh Blackman expressing confusing over the footnote and whether it is consistent with the Court's jurisprudence.
The footnote does not seem correct to me, as it would wreak havoc on equal protection law if it were the law. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, but many laws apply to certain people or groups, and unless these distinctions are based on "protected classes" of individuals, the distinctions are generally upheld as constitutional as long as there is a rational basis for the different treatment. (See, e.g. Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 464-465 (1981)). The equal protection guarantee is in a constitutional amendment (albeit not in the "first ten"), but the logic of Footnote 27 would require any law that treated any group differently to be subject to a level of scrutiny beyond rational basis. This could result in a crippling level of challenges against legislation, and would be contrary to extensive precedent.
Silvester joins the ranks of the numerous other Second Amendment challenges the Supreme Court has refused to hear. It remains unclear when the Court will choose to clarify the scope of Second Amendment protections, and despite a great deal of noisy debate on gun control, it is far from certain whether further gun regulations will be implemented on the state or federal level as mass shootings continue to occur.