The Second Amendment's 'People' Problem

84 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2023 Last revised: 11 Oct 2023

See all articles by Pratheepan Gulasekaram

Pratheepan Gulasekaram

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School; University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School

Date Written: February 21, 2023


The second amendment has a “people” problem. In 2008, Heller v. District of Columbia expanded the scope of the second amendment, grounding it in an individualized right of self-protection. At the same time, Heller’s rhetoric limited the “the people” of the second amendment to “law-abiding citizens.” In 2022, NYSRPA v. Bruen doubled-down on the amendment’s self-defense rationales, but once again framed the right as one possessed by “citizens.” In the period between the two Supreme Court cases, eight federal courts of appeals wrestled with the question whether the right to keep and bear arms is a citizen-only right. Although those courts proffered varying perspectives on the meaning of “the people,” they uniformly rejected challenges to the federal criminal ban on possession by unlawfully present persons and nonimmigrants. In addition to the federal criminal ban, the immigration code allows for deportation of all noncitizens, including permanent residents, for firearms-related violations. In combination, the Supreme Court’s rhetoric, lower federal court decisions, and federal criminal and immigration statutes excise noncitizens from the “the people” of the second amendment.

This Article is the first to examine the relationship between “the people,” immigration status, and the right to keep and bear arms, in the wake of both Heller and Bruen. My analysis argues that courts undertheorize the systemic effects of constricting “the people” to citizens, or more recently, countenance historical inquiries that yield incoherent results. Intratextual comparison of “the people” of the second amendment with “the people” of the first and fourth amendments fares no better. That appraisal also commands broader inclusiveness for the second amendment’s rightsholders than current jurisprudence permits. This Article concludes that a more coherent theory of second amendment rightsholders would necessarily include most noncitizens, at least when the right is grounded in self-defense from interpersonal violence. This conclusion casts doubt on current federal law that categorically criminalizes possession by certain groups of noncitizens, as well as deportation rules that banish all noncitizens for firearms violations. More capacious interpretations of the second amendment’s “the people” in turn, helps ensure noncitizens’ inclusion under other core constitutional protections.

Keywords: second amendment, firearms, immigration, "the people", noncitizens, unauthorized immigrants, alien-in-possession, Bruen, Heller, unauthorized immigration, first amdendment, fourth amendment

Suggested Citation

Gulasekaram, Pratheepan, The Second Amendment's 'People' Problem (February 21, 2023). 76 Vanderbilt Law Review 1437 (2023), Available at SSRN:

Pratheepan Gulasekaram (Contact Author)

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

University of Colorado at Boulder - University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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