Friday, February 03, 2023

Bruen's Goose Continues To Not Apply to the Gander

The thing about the Fifth Circuit's recent ruling that the Second Amendment gives men under domestic abuse restraining orders an inalienable right to bear arms is that it is (a) insane and (b) absolutely defensible under the Supreme Court's Bruen decision. This is because the Bruen decision will regularly and predictably lead to insane results.

That said, I did want to flag something in the opinion that I've picked up on before -- namely, the inconsistent commitment to Bruen's supposed prohibition on weighing or considering "social policy" considerations. Judge Wilson, writing for the panel, expressly cites to this portion of Bruen, saying that while the prohibition on gun possession by domestic abusers "embodies salutary policy goals meant to protect vulnerable people in our society ... Bruen forecloses any such analysis in favor of a historical analogical inquiry into the scope of the allowable burden on the Second Amendment right." This principle is, perhaps above all else, the crux of Bruen's standard -- no matter how ridiculous, or absurd, or unfair, or chaotic the policy outcomes are, courts are not permitted to "weigh" them against the historical limitations that bounded the Second Amendment. The latter begins and ends the conversation.

Again, that principle is absurd. But it's Bruen's principle, and the Fifth Circuit gleefully cites it to explain why the prospect of terrified and murdered women can play no role in its legal analysis. But what happens if the historical arguments seem to counsel permitting more sweeping gun regulations than conservative jurists might like? All of the sudden, those social policy considerations come roaring back into view.

Addressing the historical precedents which did clearly envision government's authority to disarm "dangerous" persons, Judge Wilson explains that such exceptions must be narrowly construed so as not to apply to the case of domestic abusers. Why? Because, he asserts,

the Government’s proffered interpretation lacks any true limiting principle. Under the Government’s reading, Congress could remove “unordinary” or “irresponsible” or “nonlaw abiding” people—however expediently defined—from the scope of the Second Amendment. Could speeders be stripped of their right to keep and bear arms? Political nonconformists? People who do not recycle or drive an electric vehicle?

I take no position on whether the government's interpretation is so expansive. But note that this line of argument is expressly an analysis of the proper policy sweep of government regulation. We should tailor our interpretation of the Second Amendment's scope so as to avoid a policy outcome whereby too few people are guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms; to avoid an outcome where the government is permitted to disarm people who these judges think it would be manifestly unfair to have their gun rights taken away.

This is exactly the sort of policy analysis Bruen purports to forbid, only here the "policy" concerns are ones counseling in favor of greater freedom to bear arms rather than reduced freedom to bear arms. Perhaps it seems absurd to permit the government to take away arms from people just for getting a speeding ticket. But so what?  Bruen was emphatic that this sort of social policy assessment has no role in Second Amendment adjudication. If the historical analogues give the state that sort of latitude, then that is supposed to end the conversation. Again, it is baked in the Bruen cake that it will lead to results that may appear to modern eyes ridiculous, because Bruen expressly instructs courts that they aren't allowed to care about those consequences no matter how absurd they might seem to be.

But as the Fifth Circuit's ruling makes clear, the Bruen prohibition on weighing policy consequences is, unsurprisingly, a one-way ratchet. Conservative courts will portentously declare that Bruen forbids them from considering the disastrous consequences of countless terrified or murdered women if it means taking away domestic abusers' guns -- but if history and tradition start to point towards enabling gun restrictions that the right finds too onerous, then all of the sudden we get a screeching parade of contemporary policy horribles that are treated as legally dispositive. This is what generates such well-deserved cynicism about the state of the judiciary today -- it's not just that the legal rules the governing class of jurists announce are absurd, it's that these jurists do not even pretend to be bound by them the second they prove inconvenient to their underlying politics.

The other thing to note about this case is that, if the Supreme Court reverses it -- and they might -- their reasoning will almost certainly purport to be based on some alternate assessment and reading of the historical sources. But this will be a naked smokescreen, and everyone will know it. If the Court reverses the Fifth Circuit here, it will be entirely and solely because the Court finds it too unreasonable and intolerable to permit domestic abusers free reign to carry arms -- a contemporary policy judgment anyway you look at it, no matter how much effort is or isn't expended to cloak it in some faux-historical garb. None of these judges abide by the rules they purport to lay out.

1 comment:

jonathanm said...

I'd really like a version of this in layman's terms.