A Constitutional Right to Self-Defense?

Orin's and David Kopel's posts below discuss whether Heller recognized a constitutional right to self-defense. I'm inclined to say the answer is yes, for the following reasons:

1. Heller recognized a right to keep and bear arms in self-defense, which logically presupposes some legal right to self-defense. Why would the Constitution let you keep an object for a certain purpose, when all use of the object for that purpose could be outlawed?

2. Heller often talks of a "right to self-defense" in contexts that suggest it is of constitutional statute, e.g., "That of the nine state constitutional protections for the right to bear arms enacted immediately after 1789 at least seven unequivocally protected an individual citizen's right to self-defense is strong evidence that that is how the founding generation conceived of the right."

3. I suppose that a right to keep and bear arms in self-defense could coexist with a regime that allowed people only a right to self-defense using arms, and that banned unarmed self-defense, or self-defense with weapons that might not qualify as "arms" for Second Amendment purposes. But that wouldn't make a lot of sense: Why would you have a right to defend yourself — lethally, if necessary — using the most lethal weapons, and not using less lethal means? Sometimes the legal answer to some questions is "because that's the way we've always done things, even if you think that's illogical," but that answer can't work here, because tradition is on the side of a right to self-defense using whatever means come to hand.

4. But can an opinion by Justice Scalia, no fan of unenumerated rights, be read as recognizing such a right? Well, it does seem to read that way on its face; and beyond that, Justice Scalia has signalled an openness both to unenumerated rights when they have been broadly recognized for hundreds of years, and to this right in particular. See Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 56 (1996) (four-Justice plurality authored by Justice Scalia) (suggesting that "the right to have a jury consider self-defense evidence" may be "fundamental" and supported by the "historical record"; such a right would make little sense if self-defense could be abolished as a defense).

5. At least some lower court judges — including some Reagan and Bush appointees — have shown a willingness to recognize a constitutional right to self-defense, even before the Second Amendment was recognized an individual right. Compare, e.g., Rowe v. DeBruyn, 17 F.3d 1047, 1054-56 (7th Cir. 1994) (Ripple, J., dissenting); id. at 1047 n.** (Cudahy, Flaum, Ripple, and Rovner, JJ., supporting rehearing en banc); DeCamp v. N.J. Dep't of Corr., 902 A.2d 357, 361--62 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2006) (endorsing Judge Ripple's position and concluding that prisoners have self-defense rights, though without explicitly deciding whether those are federal constitutional rights or only state law rights); Isaac v. Engle, 646 F.2d 1129 (6th Cir. 1980) (en banc) (Merritt, J., dissenting), rev'd on other grounds, 456 U.S. 107 (1982) with Rowe, 17 F.3d at 1052-53 (7th Cir. 1994) (rejecting a constitutional right to self-defense generally, though the case involved only prisoner rights).

6. Likewise, at least two state courts have expressly read a state constitutional right to bear arms in self-defense provision as supporting a right to self-defense, at least with those arms (though for the reasons mentioned in item 2, I don't see how the right would be so limited. See McKellar v. Mason, 159 So. 2d 700, 702 (La. Ct. App. 1964); State ex rel. City of Princeton v. Buckner, 377 S.E.2d 139, 142--44 (W. Va. 1988).

7. If one counts all the states that have a right to bear arms for individual self-defense in the state constitution together with all the states that have a right to defend life expressly mentioned in the state constitution (and many state courts have indeed read such rights to defend life and property as securing constitutionally protected rights), one gets 44 of the 50 states — an important marker of the breadth of self-defense as a constitutionally secured right, and not just a common-law right. See generally Volokh, State Constitutional Rights of Self-Defense and Defense of Property, 11 Tex. Rev. of L. & Pol. 399 (2007).

None of these, standing alone, would be dispositive evidence that the courts are likely to recognize a constitutional right to self-defense in the wake of Heller. But put together, it seems to me they point strongly in that direction.

I should note, though, that this surely doesn't mean a constitutional right to use deadly force in all circumstances in which one is defending oneself. Historical limitations on this right — either broadly accepted, or at least accepted by a substantial minority of states — are likely to be upheld, especially if history and tradition is a large part of the basis for recognizing the right in the first place.

Thus, a rule that one can only use deadly force to defend oneself against threats of death, serious bodily injury, rape, kidnapping, and a few other very serious threats would likely be constitutional (even though many states also allow use of deadly force to defend against robbery and in some situations burglary). Likewise, the "duty to retreat," which is to say the principle that deadly force can only be used in self-defense if it's genuinely necessary, in that no safe avenue of retreat is available, is likely to be constitutional, too, because it has long been recognized in at least a substantial minority of states. There may be other examples as well. My point is that a federal constitutional right to self-defense likely exists, especially in the wake of Heller; but it is not unlimited, and is likely to be strongest precisely where there's a broad and deep common-law and statutory tradition of recognizing such a right.