The Dead Hand of a Silent Past: Bruen, Gun Rights, and the Shackles of History
89 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2023 Last revised: 5 Oct 2023
Date Written: January 23, 2023
In June 2022, the Supreme Court struck down a state concealed carry law on Second Amendment grounds. In that decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Court declared that future Second Amendment challenges should be evaluated solely with reference to text, history, and tradition. That test is essentially sui generis in the Court’s individual-rights jurisprudence. Yet it represents both an extension of an increasingly historically-focused Supreme Court case law and a harbinger of future doctrinal transformations in other domains.
This Article critically assesses Bruen’s test, and in the process raises concerns about other areas of rights-jurisprudence trending in ever more historically-inflected directions. In critiquing Bruen’s method, the Article foregrounds the unsatisfying justifications for the novel test and its unworkable features. It underscores how Bruen’s emphasis on historical silence imbues an absent past with more explanatory power than it can bear—or than the Court even tries to justify. The Article then synthesizes and analyzes the results from more than 300 lower federal court decisions applying Bruen, which reveals the test’s fundamental unworkability.
On top of that descriptive and critical work, the Article makes several prescriptive arguments about possible judicial and legislative responses to the decision. For judges, the Article endorses and amplifies arguments about the use of neutral historical experts appointed by courts, identifies ways that lower courts can usefully underline Bruen’s gaps and mitigate its open texture, and suggests that courts are justified in narrowing Bruen from below. For lawmakers, it argues that when legislatures pass new gun laws, they ought to be explicit about four types of evidence for the law’s constitutionality that track Bruen’s new demands: the purpose for the law, the expected burden on armed self-defense, the precise nature of the problem to which the law is directed, and the historical tradition from which the law springs.
Keywords: Bruen, Second Amendment, constitutional law, history, firearms law, Heller
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