The Right to Arms in the Living Constitution

That’s the topic of my new article, for a forthcoming issue of Cardozo Law Review de Novo (the on-line supplement to Cardozo’s printed journal). The article will be part of a symposium issue on McDonald v. Chicago.

Here’s the abstract for my Cardozo article:

This Article presents a brief history of the Second Amendment as part of the living Constitution. From the Early Republic through the present, the American public has always understood the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a right to own firearms for self-defense. That view has been in accordance with élite legal opinion, except for a period in part of the twentieth century.
“Living constitutionalism” should be distinguished from “dead constitutionalism.” Under the former, courts looks to objective referents of shared public understanding of constitutional values. Examples of objective referents include state constitutions, as well as federal or state laws to protect constitutional rights. Under a “dead constitution,” judges simply impose their personal values, and nullify parts of the Constitution which they do not like.
When living constitutionalism is taken seriously, the case for the Second Amendment individual right to own and carry firearms for self-defense is very strong. In the 19th century, almost all legal commentators and courts, as well as the political branches and the public, recognized the Second Amendment as guaranteeing such a right.
In the 20th century, some elements of the legal elite asserted that the Second Amendment guaranteed no meaningful right. But this view was never accepted by the public or by the political branches. Congress repeatedly enacted laws to protect Second Amendment rights. In the states, right to arms constitutional provisions were added or strengthened, and many statutes were enacted to defend and broaden the right, especially in the last several decades. Opinion polls showed that the public always believed in the Second Amendment right.
As Jack Balkin has elucidated, the ability of groups such as the NRA (or the ACLU or NAACP) to mobilize constituencies, persuasively communicate their constitutional vision to the public, and influence the political process in favor of the appointment of sympathetic judges is a major force which shapes our living constitution.
From an originalist standpoint, the living constitutionalism of the Second Amendment had a positive influence, in that the social and political forces which living constitutionalism celebrates finally convinced the Supreme Court to stop ignoring the Second Amendment. Living constitutionalism does not always lead back to enforcement of original meaning, but in District of Columbia v. Heller, it did.

This Article presents a brief history of the Second Amendment as part of the living Constitution. From the Early Republic through the present, the American public has always understood the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a right to own firearms for self-defense. That view has been in accordance with élite legal opinion, except for a period in part of the twentieth century.

“Living constitutionalism” should be distinguished from “dead constitutionalism.” Under the former, courts looks to objective referents of shared public understanding of constitutional values. Examples of objective referents include state constitutions, as well as federal or state laws to protect constitutional rights. Under a “dead constitution,” judges simply impose their personal values, and nullify parts of the Constitution which they do not like.

When living constitutionalism is taken seriously, the case for the Second Amendment individual right to own and carry firearms for self-defense is very strong. In the 19th century, almost all legal commentators and courts, as well as the political branches and the public, recognized the Second Amendment as guaranteeing such a right.

In the 20th century, some elements of the legal élite asserted that the Second Amendment guaranteed no meaningful right. But this view was never accepted by the public or by the political branches. Congress repeatedly enacted laws to protect Second Amendment rights. In the states, right to arms constitutional provisions were added or strengthened, and many statutes were enacted to defend and broaden the right, especially in the last several decades. Opinion polls showed that the public always believed in the Second Amendment right.

As Jack Balkin has elucidated, the ability of groups such as the NRA (or the ACLU or NAACP) to mobilize constituencies, persuasively communicate their constitutional vision to the public, and influence the political process in favor of the appointment of sympathetic judges is a major force which shapes our living constitution.

From an originalist standpoint, the living constitutionalism of the Second Amendment had a positive influence, in that the social and political forces which living constitutionalism celebrates finally convinced the Supreme Court to stop ignoring the Second Amendment. Living constitutionalism does not always lead back to enforcement of original meaning, but in District of Columbia v. Heller, it did.

For discussion of Judge Benjamin Cardozo’s viewpoint on  self-defense, see pages 15-17 of the California and Nevada district attorneys’ amicus brief in McDonald.