John Paul Stevens served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010. This essay is excerpted from his new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”
Following the massacre of grammar-school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, high-powered weapons have been used to kill innocent victims in more senseless public incidents. Those killings, however, are only a fragment of the total harm caused by the misuse of firearms. Each year, more than 30,000 people die in the United States in firearm-related incidents. Many of those deaths involve handguns.
The adoption of rules that will lessen the number of those incidents should be a matter of primary concern to both federal and state legislators. Legislatures are in a far better position than judges to assess the wisdom of such rules and to evaluate the costs and benefits that rule changes can be expected to produce. It is those legislators, rather than federal judges, who should make the decisions that will determine what kinds of firearms should be available to private citizens, and when and how they may be used. Constitutional provisions that curtail the legislative power to govern in this area unquestionably do more harm than good.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution placed limits on the powers of the new federal government. Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of the Second Amendment, which provides that “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.”
For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”
When I joined the court in 1975, that holding was generally understood as limiting the scope of the Second Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.
Organizations such as the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and mounted a vigorous campaign claiming that federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Five years after his retirement, during a 1991 appearance on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” Burger himself remarked that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
In recent years two profoundly important changes in the law have occurred. In 2008, by a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home for purposes of self-defense. And in 2010, by another vote of 5 to 4, the court decided in McDonald v. Chicagothat the due process clause of the 14th Amendment limits the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. I dissented in both of those cases and remain convinced that both decisions misinterpreted the law and were profoundly unwise. Public policies concerning gun control should be decided by the voters’ elected representatives, not by federal judges.
In my dissent in the McDonald case, I pointed out that the court’s decision was unique in the extent to which the court had exacted a heavy toll “in terms of state sovereignty. . . . Even apart from the States’ long history of firearms regulation and its location at the core of their police powers, this is a quintessential area in which federalism ought to be allowed to flourish without this Court’s meddling. Whether or not we can assert a plausible constitutional basis for intervening, there are powerful reasons why we should not do so.”
“Across the Nation, States and localities vary significantly in the patterns and problems of gun violence they face, as well as in the traditions and cultures of lawful gun use. . . . The city of Chicago, for example, faces a pressing challenge in combating criminal street gangs. Most rural areas do not.”