Our Non-Originalist Right to Bear Arms
88 Pages Posted: 15 Jun 2012 Last revised: 5 Jun 2013
Date Written: May 6, 2012
District of Columbia v. Heller was a landmark, if controversial, opinion. Discussion has centered on the merits of its self-described originalist approach. Supporters praise its efforts to return to a more originalist and textualist approach to constitutional questions, whereas critics challenge the accuracy of Heller’s historical claims and criticize its departure from precedent.
This paper challenges much of the conventional wisdom about Heller, its use of originalism, and its relationship to nineteenth and twentieth century case law. This article argues that, despite much of its rhetoric, Heller actually exemplified popular constitutionalism — not originalism — in the way it approached the most important practical question at issue in the case: determining the content of the right to bear arms. On that question, Heller — and not Miller — is largely consistent with the way, throughout most of American history, that both state and federal courts have adjudicated cases involving the right to bear arms. In particular, this article argues that the dominant approach followed by nineteenth-century courts was neither “originalist” nor “textualist” about the right to bear arms. These courts did not look to how James Madison viewed the right in 1789 or how Americans in 1791 commonly understood the Second Amendment. Instead, they attempted to find compromise positions on the scope of the right to bear arms to accommodate a population divided between those believing in the right and those seeking stronger restrictions on weapons. To do this, the nineteenth-century courts shifted their understanding of the purpose of the right to bear arms over time, which, in turn, enabled them to reach conclusions about the content of the right that reflected the contemporary popular understanding of the right — and of the right’s limits. In this revisionist account, Miller is the case that represented a break with the courts’ historical approach because it arguably allowed access to common military weapons — an approach that did not readily allow courts to adjust the Second Amendment right to new circumstances as these military weapons became increasingly destructive. These difficulties prompted subsequent courts to adopt the “collective rights” interpretation of Miller — an interpretation that was too rigidly restrictive, and therefore, also difficult to adjust to reflect popular understandings. The paper concludes that Heller reflects a new compromise: expanding the individual self-defense rationale while diminishing the Second Amendment’s military objectives. This new compromise recognizes an individual right to have self-defense weapons, while allowing greater control over military-style weapons — which aligns with how mainstream Americans today view the right. Although Heller radically reshaped the Second Amendment right to fit the twenty-first century popular understanding of the right, its methodological approach is quite consistent with how most courts have approached Second Amendment questions — an approach that sounds more in popular constitutionalism than originalism.
Keywords: Second Amendment, right to bear arms, gun control, state constitutional law, originalism, popular constitutionalism
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation