The Latest Victory for the Second Amendment

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In theory, the bold, frequent use of civil liberties tends to protect them. But it’s no guarantee. Both of these statements find support in the recent history of gun-related legislation in California.

It was 2010. I was on the phone with a journalist. He was looking for comments on some proposed legislation that had been in the news. An assemblywoman from San Diego, Lori Saldaña, wanted to do away with Californians’ little-known right to carry unloaded guns openly. “She says it’s dangerous, because a cop might shoot one of those guys with guns on their hips; what do you think about that?” He was asking me for a counter-argument.

At that time, the California legislature was considering Saldaña’s bill to ban the open carry of unloaded firearms. The attempted legislation had been prompted by outraged reactions in California to the nationwide open-carry movement.[1] In the two years or so before the proposed ban, advocates of gun rights in California had been organizing small marches and meetings where they would very carefully and very openly exercise a right that few people in California knew they had — the right to openly carry unloaded firearms. Picture a half dozen men and women at a Starbucks with holstered, empty semi-automatic pistols on one hip and holstered, full clips of ammunition on the other. California law (with exceptions that aren’t important here) went like this: concealed carry of any gun, loaded or not, is illegal without a permit, and open carry of loaded guns is illegal without a permit. In most counties of California, permits were very hard to get. You had to show “cause,” and cause seemed to be whatever the issuing authority thought it should be. That left only the rarely used right to carry unloaded guns in public openly, without a permit.

The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded.

“That argument is ridiculous and illogical,” I said to the journalist. “Cops are supposed to know the law and enforce it, not shoot people who are doing nothing wrong or illegal. The solution is to change the cops, not to change the law. You don’t take away rights just because the police are surprised to see somebody exercising them.”

This was in response to arguments advanced to support Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña’s bill to prohibit open carry. That bill didn’t pass, but soon a similar bill, AB 144, was introduced. The author of that bill, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, made similarly bad arguments in its favor. For example, in an interview with Reason.tv, he said, “Just because one person is comfortable with their weapon, doesn’t mean that that gives that person the right to infringe on the rights of other people who aren’t comfortable.”[2] Was that some kind of sophisticated argument about competing civil rights: the right to bear arms and the right to be comfortable? No. There is no constitutional right to be comfortable. The argument was, in fact, as stupid as it sounded. Portantino also made and, finding it very clever, frequently repeated, a classic straw-man argument, saying “you don’t need a handgun to order a cheeseburger,” as though gun-rights activists were complaining that they could only get fast-food service at gunpoint.

AB 144 passed and was signed into law. The right to open carry (unloaded) was gone.

Something similar happened in California in the 20th century. By the 1960s, in urban areas of California it was rare to see people carrying loaded firearms in public. At the time, they had a legal right to. The law didn’t change, but the culture did. The Black Panthers knew this when, in 1967, they marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns. They were not committing a crime. Public reaction to that scene made it easy for the legislature to pass a law banning open carrying of loaded guns.

Some civil libertarians thought that what the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and what the open-carry advocates did just a few years ago were counterproductive, because they provoked anti-liberal legislation. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, a civil right is of little value if nobody uses it. Second, Edward Peruta v. County of San Diego.[3]

Edward Peruta applied to the San Diego sheriff for a permit to carry a concealed firearm. The sheriff denied his application. Peruta then (2009) filed a lawsuit against the County of San Diego. He lost at trial and appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A panel of the Ninth Circuit found that San Diego’s process for granting and denying gun permits infringed the Second Amendment. The court’s summary of its opinion begins in this way: “The panel reversed the district court’s summary judgment and held that a responsible, law-abiding citizen has a right under the Second Amendment to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.” Wow. If anything, the body of the opinion went further.

When the Black Panthers marched on the California state capitol toting loaded rifles and shotguns, they were not committing a crime.

My first reaction was astonishment. In California of all places. In the Ninth Circuit of all jurisdictions. Wow, again. Reading the case, I soon saw the connection between AB 144 and Peruta. The legislative history of AB 144 shows that the NRA and the California Rifle and Pistol Association were prescient. They registered this argument against the bill:

In most areas of California, CCW [concealed-carry weapon]permits are rarely issued, and are usually reserved for those with political clout and the wealthy elite. Because of this reality, "open carrying" is the only method available to the overwhelming majority of law-abiding individuals who wish to carry a firearm for self-defense. Accordingly, by banning the open carrying of even unloaded firearms, SB 144 effectively shuts the door on the ability of law-abiding Californians to carry a firearm for self-defense at all.[4]

The California legislature heard that argument and replied, “so what?” The bill was law when Peruta reached the appeals court.

I believe that if open carry were not banned, the Ninth Circuit would not have overturned San Diego’s permitting rules and procedures for concealed carry. The court’s reasoning is almost mathematical. It relies heavily on Heller,[5] a 2008 Supreme Court decision that, according to the Ninth Circuit, implies that “a law-abiding citizen’s ability to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense fell within the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” Then the Peruta court repeatedly points out that California bans open carry and severely restricts concealed carry.

The math goes like this:

(A) Heller = the Supreme Court says that the Second Amendment means individuals (versus “militia”) have a right to carry firearms in public for self defense.

(B) San Diego’s implementation of California’s concealed-carry laws + California’s ban on open carry = a general prohibition on carrying firearms in public for self defense.

(A) + (B) = unconstitutional.

It’s an amazingly simple and far-reaching opinion. It will be reheard by the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc. It will reach the Supreme Court. But right now, it’s the law in California. The state must permit law-abiding citizens to carry firearms in public for self defense, either openly or concealed or both.




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The Zimmerman Verdict

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The trial of the decade (so far) has ended and George Zimmerman is a free man. What are the important points we should take from this?

First, it’s clear that the system worked. Zimmerman received a fair trial. A jury of his peers found him innocent based on the law and the evidence presented at trial. Obviously, Zimmerman was foolish to ignore police advice and continue following poor Trayvon Martin. But he committed no crime in doing so. His actions provoked the confrontation that ended in Martin’s death, but again, under Florida law he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense. The jury believed that Zimmerman feared for his life, and that’s enough in Florida to justify taking a life, even if the killer instigated the events that led up to the killing.

This trial was not a repeat of the first Rodney King trial, in which a jury consisting of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian was almost certainly blinded by a conscious or unconscious fear of blacks. Nor was it OJ all over again, with a panel practicing jury nullification in support of the defendant. It did, however, resemble the OJ case in that the prosecution was quite inept. The prosecutors were ineffective in all phases of the trial, possibly because they had a weak case to begin with. The defense on the other hand hardly put a foot wrong, aside from the unfortunate knock-knock joke in its opening statement. The authorities also overcharged the case — there was never any prospect of finding Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder. (Overcharging, by the way, is a tactic used by prosecutors all over the country as a means to get defendants to plead instead of going to trial. As such, it represents a major perversion of our justice system.)

We all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter.

We can be thankful that the verdict did not lead to major violence. The small-scale thuggery seen in Oakland and L.A. does not compare to the barbarism displayed in South Central L.A. after the King verdict. President Obama, who seems increasingly irrelevant both at home and abroad, performed a useful service by urging calm. On the other hand, the lack of a video in the Zimmerman case may have had as much to do with the absence of major violence as the measured words of America’s mixed-race chief executive.

Millions of people, both black and white, are deeply dissatisfied with the verdict. Many are urging the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Such a case would be very hard if not impossible to prove. This analyst believes Attorney General Holder will decide not to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, for the simple reason that it would probably fall apart in court, embarrassing both the Justice Department and the president. That the Attorney General is an African-American probably makes it easier to resist the temptation to file federal charges against Zimmerman. An administration in which all the key players are white might very well feel compelled to do so.

Holder, like the president, has been a moderating voice in the wake of the verdict. This has been his finest hour — or rather, his first fine hour after four-plus years in office. In a recent speech he questioned the concept of Stand Your Ground laws, maintaining that people have a duty to retreat if they can safely do so — but adding the important qualifier, when outside their home. There needs to be a serious debate nationally about the concept of Stand Your Ground. In Vermont, where I live, the law says I should retreat even if a criminal comes onto my property or enters my home. This, to me, is crazy. The idea that I must flee from my home rather than subdue or kill someone coming onto my property with criminal intent repels me. But then Vermont is a crazy place.

In my view we all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter. It’s true that Zimmerman’s defense team never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Nevertheless, that law hung like a storm cloud over the proceedings. The principle of stand your ground as applied to public spaces has led, in this case, to the death of a young man who was simply returning from a trip to the store. A cop wannabe decides to follow a teenage boy (whom he may or may not have racially profiled) despite police advice to desist, and thereby provokes a fight that leads to his shooting the kid to death. Despite these circumstances, the wannabe is innocent in the eyes of the law. The kid is dead; the wannabe walks. Surely in this case the law is an ass.




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