Thursday, January 17, 2013

Circuit Split Watch: Gun Rights Outside the Home

This article first appeared in the January 16, 2013, issue of the National Law Journal’s Supreme Court Brief.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Heller decision declared an individual right to possess a firearm at home, but left open the question of gun rights in public. The high court could be asked to weigh in soon on this open question, which has split federal appellate courts and again been part of the national conversation since the Newtown shootings.

In a December opinion, Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, writing for himself and Judge Joel Flaum, honed in on the words “keep and bear” in the Second Amendment, drawing meaning from each one.

“The right to ‘bear’ as distinct from the right to ‘keep’ arms is unlikely to refer to the home,” Posner stated. “A right to bear arms thus implies a right to carry a loaded gun outside the home.” This reading, Posner concluded, is consistent with Heller. The majority struck down an Illinois ban on carrying guns in public.

Dissenting, Judge Ann Claire Williams was not convinced that Heller implied a “right to have ready-to-use firearms” outside the home.

Williams looked to “a long history of regulating arms in public,” including state laws adopted during the founding era. Predating those laws, the 1328 Statute of Northampton provided that no one may “go nor ride armed by night nor by day, in Fairs, markets, nor in the presence of the Justices or other Ministers, nor in no part elsewhere.”

Both Posner and Williams cited recent decisions from the 2nd and 4th Circuits, which upheld public-carry restrictions (a New York law and a National Park Service regulation, respectively).

In November, a unanimous 2nd Circuit panel found “a longstanding tradition of states regulating firearm possession and use in public because of the dangers posed to public safety.”

A unanimous 4th Circuit held in 2011 that “as we move outside the home, firearm rights have always been more limited, because public safety interests often outweigh individual interests in self-defense.” As to extending Heller, two of the three judges said it is “prudent to await direction from the [Supreme] Court.”

Posner questioned both opinions and distinguished the Illinois ban as “the most restrictive gun law of any of the 50 states.” Along these lines and in an unusual move, Posner gave the Illinois legislature 180 days to revise the ban. The new law can “impose reasonable limitations, consistent with the public safety and the Second Amendment,” he explained.

If Illinois takes this option, it could lessen the practical impact of the circuit split. The revised restrictions could be similar to those upheld; in fact, the Supreme Court declined to review the 4th Circuit public-carry decision. A petition for certiorari is pending in the 2nd Circuit case.

For now, Illinois continues to fight the 7th Circuit ruling.

On January 8, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a petition for rehearing en banc. In a press release that same day, Madigan said: “In ruling that Illinois must allow individuals to carry ready-to-use firearms in public, the 7th Circuit Court’s decision goes beyond what the U.S. Supreme Court has held and conflicts with decisions by two other federal appellate courts.”

If the full 7th Circuit decides to rehear the case, any Supreme Court review would be delayed. However, a quick denial by the 7th Circuit, followed by a petition for certiorari is just as likely.