A couple of weeks ago, Justice Scalia, in dissenting from the Supreme Court decision stating that Guantanamo detainees have habeas corpus rights, lamented that the ruling “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”
Today he wrote an opinion finding a broad right to own handguns, a decision that, one could argue, “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”
Maybe, maybe not, but thanks to Slate for pointing out the contradiction. If it is one.
I don’t know whether the ruling is correct or not. The opinion and two dissents run to more than 150 pages, and they’re unusually chock-full of scholarly, historical analysis. And we’re talking about a sentence that was written more than 200 years ago in a vastly different world with vastly different writing styles and vastly different guns.
This is what happens when you try to interpret one of the world’s oldest functioning constitutions. Do other countries, with newer constitutions, have this problem? Do other countries’ judges have to interpret such sentences as, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”? Let alone the crappy sentence structure, what do the individual words mean?
It’s worth noting that the D.C. law at issue was pretty extreme. It banned the possession of handguns in your own home, and all other types of guns in your home had to remain either unloaded and dissassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. The majority opinion has narrow effect — it strikes down this law, but it doesn’t discuss other types of gun laws, including that prevent criminals or the mentally ill, etc., from having guns.
Scalia ends his opinion as follows:
We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns… But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.
What happens if we change a few words?
We are aware of the problem of terrorism in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that the stripping of habeas corpus rights is a solution. The Constitution leaves the government a variety of tools for combating that problem… But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the stripping of habeas corpus rights except in times of rebellion or invasion. Undoubtedly some think that the right of habeas corpus is outmoded in a society where the threat of terrorism is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce constitutional rights extinct.
Isn’t Supreme Court analysis fun?