Legal Issues

Supreme Court on Gun Control: Waiting and Watching, for Now


Gun control lives. On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a man barred from owning a firearm because of a 45-year-old misdemeanor assault conviction. As Bloomberg News’s high court guru, Greg Stohr, notes, the justices have repeatedly declined to take up gun-rights appeals over the last three years. The practical effect of this non-action is that the Supremes have let stand lower-court rulings preserving various restrictions on civilian gun ownership.

Wait a second, you may be saying to yourself, hasn’t the Supreme Court been on a pro-gun-rights tear? And now the justices have gone passive on the topic? Let’s step back and look more closely.

In historic rulings in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court clarified for the first time that people have a right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense. The high court majority stressed, however, that it was striking down across-the-board handgun bans in Washington, D.C., (2008) and Chicago (2010). The justices made clear that less-draconian restrictions, including those that make it difficult for those convicted of violent crimes to own guns, remained in place.

The Second Amendment right to “keep and bear” arms does not prevent government authorities from imposing reasonable curbs on who may obtain a gun and what can be done with it. Since 2010, the Supreme Court has been following its normal practice of allowing major rulings to ripple through the lower courts, as federal judges around the country apply new precedents to a variety of factual scenarios.

Eventually, the Supreme Court will almost certainly consider the constitutionality of additional gun control laws. That won’t, however, help Jefferson Wayne Schrader, who was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery after getting into a fistfight in 1968. Stohr provides more of the back story:

He received a $100 fine and no jail time. Since then, he says, he served in Vietnam, received an honorable discharge from the Navy and has had no meaningful encounters with law enforcement in the last 45 years. Schrader sued after he failed federal background checks while trying to acquire a shotgun and a handgun in 2008. The Bellevue, Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation joined Schrader in pressing the suit.

Federal law bars firearms possession by people convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison, or more than two years if the crime is a misdemeanor. A federal appeals court in Washington unanimously said that provision applied to Schrader because Maryland law doesn’t specify a maximum penalty for assault.

The three-judge panel said the firearm ban didn’t violate the Second Amendment, even though Schrader “may well” present no risk. “Congress is not limited to case-by-case exclusions of persons who have been shown to be untrustworthy with weapons,” Judge David Tatel wrote for the panel.

Tatel’s ruling, at least for the moment, remains good law.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014.

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