Part of the miserable ritual that follows American mass shootings is the lament that nothing can be done unless we get rid of the Second Amendment. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens reasoned thus:
There’s a good case to be made for owning a handgun for self-defense, or a rifle for hunting. There is no remotely sane case for being allowed to purchase, as [Las Vegas mass murderer] Paddock did, 33 firearms in the space of a year. But that change can’t happen without a constitutional fix. Anything less does little more than treat the symptoms of the disease.
The pro-gun side echoes this claim of textual determinism. My colleague James Fallows, writing on Monday, quoted a correspondent who is a “famous novelist” as saying, “the Constitution trumps (if you’ll pardon the expression) all prudential or policy considerations. It makes them utterly irrelevant.” Justice Clarence Thomas, as I recently wrote, makes the same claim—that the text of the amendment and the Supreme Court’s case law create a “fundamental right” that is violated by a ban on assault weapons, a waiting period for gun purchases, or limits on high-capacity magazines.
As a statement of what the law is, this is flat wrong: The courts have not, to date, interpreted the Second Amendment beyond the right of (in Stephens’s phrase) “owning a handgun for self-defense,” and, in fact, of owning that handgun in the home. “[W]e hold,” the Court wrote in Heller v. District of Columbia, “that [D.C.’s] ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.” Justice Scalia’s opinion set out careful limits:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
So throwing up our hands and proclaiming that we can’t move forward without a “constitutional fix” is a flawed response; so is responding to gun-control proposals with outlandish claims of constitutional protection. We have the Second Amendment; rather than engage in loose talk, we should look at its text carefully:
In Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia divided the amendment into a “prefatory clause” (“militia”) and an “operative clause” (“right to keep and bear”). Then, drawing on statutory interpretation texts, he announced that the “militia” language expressed the amendment’s purpose, but that “a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause.”