Conservative majorities in legislatures in the Southern and Western U.S. have aggressively expanded gun rights in recent years. But there is one venue where the conservative majority has proved surprisingly reluctant to join this movement: the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2008, the court’s five conservatives issued the landmark 5-4 decision in Heller v. District of Columbia, which held that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. Gun-rights proponents have been pushing both to clarify and expand that ruling ever since.
While the gun-rights movement’s legislative success in conservative states has been extraordinary, its record in the courts has been mixed. In 2014, the Supreme Court opted not to weigh in on a New Jersey law requiring residents to show a “justifiable need” to carry a handgun in public. Now it has sidestepped a dispute over a San Francisco law that places limits on handguns inside the house.
The city’s police code requires handguns at home to be stored in a locked container or disabled with a trigger lock when not carried on the person. The Supreme Court let stand a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that said the 2007 law did not significantly impinge on gun owners’ Second Amendment rights.
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While plaintiffs, including the National Rifle Association, argued that the San Francisco law was similar to the Washington (D.C.) law the court struck down seven years ago, the city countered that its ordinance “allows citizens to carry loaded and unlocked handguns on their person at any time, including in a holster.”
That appears to have been enough of a distinction to carry the day – or at least avoid dealing with the issue for another day. The public-policy rationale is clear: If guns are required to be stored, locked or carried, then they will remain out of reach of children or senile elders.
Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the court’s decision not to hear the case, writing that the lower court’s ruling was “in serious tension” with Heller. Yet in that decision, Thomas’s conservative colleague Antonin Scalia wrote: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
The court’s refusal to hear the appeal of the San Francisco law is, however, in serious tension with the gun-rights movement and its proposition that the Second Amendment trumps all other rights and considerations. Until the court says otherwise, states, counties and cities can maintain reasonable restrictions on guns. At the same time, states with maximalist gun laws will offer striking counterexamples. The politics – and law – of gun regulation is far from settled.