Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The "Plain Text" Threshold Requirement of Bruen

One aspect of the Supreme Court's recent Bruen decision I haven't heard a lot about is the apparent caveat that its "historical tradition" test only applies in circumstances where "the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct." This, of course, suggests that there are other instances where the "plain text" does not cover the conduct, in which case a different, as-yet-unknown standard, applies. What sorts of gun regulations might skirt Bruen review because they are not covered by the "plain text"?

At one level, this inquiry is specious for at least two reasons. The first is that the Second Amendment's text is the furthest thing from "plain". It is notoriously one of the least well-written constitutional clauses, which perhaps is one reason why nobody "discovered" it covered an individual right to bear arms until over two centuries after its adoption, and why even following those decisions every lower court in the country adopted a method of interpretation that the Supreme Court summarily dismissed as incorrect in Bruen. Some plainness!

The second reason is that practically speaking the rule in Bruen will not be the rule in Bruen. Rather, the rule will be "strike down whatever gun regulations conservatives don't like", and no amount of lawyerly parsing of Bruen's language is going to change that. The Supreme Court or the Fifth Circuit, salivating at the prospect of pouring more guns onto the streets, is not going to even stutter just because it encounters a reading of Bruen that appears to stand in their way. Bruen is what they say it is, and what they'll say it is is a blank check to strike down gun regulations with wild abandon. So to that extent, this entire exercise is one of false hope.

But if we play make-believe for a moment, it seems to me that the majority of contentious gun regulations are not plainly covered by the Second Amendment, even under the Supreme Court's expansive view. "Plain", after all, is somewhat of a term of art in law. "Plain error" review doesn't cover all errors, only truly obvious, slap-you-in-the-face errors. The rule that tribal courts have, in the first instance, the right to determine whether they have jurisdiction over the case comes with an exception in cases where it is "plain" that they do not, but that exception is again does not cover all cases where tribal courts lack jurisdiction -- only the clear, indisputable cases.

The Court's recent gun cases -- Heller, McDonald, Bruen -- have all involved regulations that, more-or-less, effectuate a total bar on an individual's ability to keep and bear arms (where the former seems to cover one's home, and the latter the public sphere), or at least those arms which are common in the modern era such that they are effective as means of self-defense. Everyone in Chicago, and the average Manhattanite, cannot carry a gun at all. This, the Court says, plainly is covered by the Second Amendment's text. Laws which flatly prevent either a certain type of person or a person in a particular location from carrying any sort of (modern) armament can only be justified if they fit into historical categories where such absolute restrictions had been permitted.

The examples of gun regulations which the Court says should be assessed and may pass under Bruen also are of this sort. A ban on felons possessing guns is an absolute ban on that sort of person bearing arms. Can it be justified? Yes, the Court intimates, under the historical practice of limiting gun ownership by dangerous persons. A ban on carrying a gun into a courthouse is an absolute ban on bearing arms in that setting. Can it be justified? Yes again, the Court suggests, under the historical practice of limiting arms in "sensitive places". New York's "may issue" licensing regime means that large swaths of New Yorkers, based on largely discretionary bureaucratic judgment, cannot carrying a gun in public. Can that be justified? No, the Court says, one cannot call all of New York City a "sensitive place". All of these examples represent situations where one could say that the state is trying to create an absolute gun-free space for a particular class of person or location, an endeavor which the Court could say "plainly" implicates the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms.

But many important gun regulations are not of this sort. Consider California's assault weapons ban, which just was sent back to a district court to assess in the wake of Bruen. Most commentators, it seems, think the relevant inquiry after Bruen is whether an assault weapons ban represents the sort of gun regulation that has a historical parallel in the relevant constitutional time period (the typical claimed parallel is to rules governing "dangerous and unusual" weapons). I would argue, though, that there's a threshold question of whether Bruen applies at all based on whether the law plainly is covered by the Second Amendment. Unlike the rules at issue in Bruen, Heller, and McDonald, the assault weapons ban does not create or seek to create a "gun-free space". Individuals remain perfectly able to both keep and bear arms that can practically vindicate their personal right of self-defense outside the home. Being restricted from bearing the particular armament of their choice is not the same thing as being blocked from keeping or bearing arms in totality. So the "plain text" does not cover the California law, and accordingly the Bruen test is inapposite.

Again, it is important to stress that the position here is not that there is no argument that Second Amendment covers a right to possess assault weapons. There undoubtedly are such arguments, and I suspect such arguments are not at all frivolous. Perhaps they're even persuasive. But again, the issue is not whether the Second Amendment covers an assault weapons ban. The question is whether the plain text covers it. That can and should be viewed as a much narrower question, just as "plain error" is not remotely coterminous with "error".

Many other gun regulations are like this. Most licensing requirements (at least, those which aren't thinly veiled pretexts for banning guns altogether), magazine capacity limits, background checks, registration requirements -- none of these plainly are covered by the Second Amendment in the way that the laws at issue in Bruen and its predecessors are, and so none of them need to be justified by resort to Bruen's test.

I also don't think that the "plain text" language can be dismissed as a cavalier rhetorical flourish.  It is included at the top of Part II of Justice Thomas' majority opinion, where he announces the new text, the bottom of Part II, where he "reiterates" the test, and the top of Part III, where he applies the test. It also is notable that the portion of the opinion where Justice Thomas assesses whether the "the plain text of the Second Amendment protects Koch’s and Nash’s proposed course of conduct" (Part III.A) is quite brief, because he has "little difficulty concluding that it does [protect]" -- suggesting that the law at issue here is plainly under the Second Amendment's ambit in a way that other laws might not be. The vast majority of the Court's analysis applying the new test is not concentrating on whether the conduct is covered by the "plain text" (which it views as easy, in keeping with "plain" being "plain"), but on whether any of the historical examples of permissible gun regulations nonetheless warrant New York's statute. Again, this indicates that we are in the realm of a "plain" imposition on the Second Amendment; which in turn suggests that "plain text" is not superfluous verbiage.

I might even argue that treating "plain text" as a threshold requirement is necessary for Bruen's internal logic to make any sense at all. Bruen styles itself as a originalist/textualist opinion, but the "historical practices" test is embarrassingly atextual along two dimensions: (a) one could stare at the text of the Second Amendment indefinitely and never derive the test from it, and (b) looking at "historical understandings" is not the same thing as seeking to uncover the semantic meaning of the Second Amendment's words as they would have been understood at the time of ratification (which is what contemporary originalist textualism claims is its project). But if we view Bruen as doing what it says and only applying in cases where a gun regulation plainly is covered by the Second Amendment -- laws which seem to entirely prevent certain persons or places from being occupied by guns that practically can provide personal self-defense -- then the "historical practices" test makes a bit more sense from an originalist perspective. A pure textualist might struggle to justify even, say, the ex-felon ban on possessing weapons -- are they not "plainly" being deprived of the ability to keep and bear arms? Yes they are! But knowing that the framers did endorse at least some laws that incontestably limit certain persons' ability to keep and bear arms suggests limits on the original understanding of what the Second Amendment says that might otherwise be hard to square with the Amendment's "plain text". The utility of Bruen's test is considerably less apparent, however, in circumstances where there is not a "plain" imposition on the right to bear arms. In such cases, "historical practices" risks becoming a license for courts to cut bloody swaths through any law which happens to touch on the subject of guns whenever a suitably analogous regulation cannot be found (even when the reason it cannot be found is because the problem is novel and could not have had an obvious early-American analogue).

So I think there is good reason to view "plain text" as a threshold requirement before a court applies Bruen, and that many regulations which are categorized as "gun control" are not covered because they do not "plainly" impinge on the right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, if we take this seriously -- which, I again hasten to clarify, we almost certainly should not, because there is no way Bruen will serve as a license for gun regulation in any circumstance where conservatives don't want it -- Bruen could mark out a very interesting compromise: laws which "plainly" impinge on the Second Amendment (which is to say, seek to effectuate a total bar on possession of guns by certain people or in certain places) are subjected to the "historical tradition" inquiry. Laws which regulate guns but do not plainly fall under the Second Amendment's ambit (insofar as they leave space for significant practical ability to keep and bear arms) get rational basis review. That might actually be a compromise I could live with. 

But of course, this Court has not remotely signaled interest in compromise. Its maxim is that the strong take what they may, and the weak suffer what they must, and right now they are reveling in right-wing strength. So as much as I enjoyed this frolic into a fantasy where judges are constrained by law, in the real world I suspect the rule in Bruen will be whatever the far-right wants it to be.

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