While the Congress debates new restrictions on gun ownership, the U.S. Supreme Court prudently decided to stay out of the fray by announcing on Monday that it would not hear a case challenging the constitutionality of New York’s gun licensing laws.

In a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and possess firearms. In McDonald v. City of Chicago, it added the Second Amendment also restricts what states can do to regulate firearms.

After Heller and McDonald, we know that the extraordinarily restrictive handgun bans in D.C. and in Chicago violated the Second Amendment, but those cases didn’t specify exactly how far the constitutional right “to keep and bear arms” extends.

No constitutional right is absolute. Though the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” there are in fact numerous federal and state laws that restrict what may be said and published.

One may not threaten the life of the president. Military and national security secrets may not be divulged. Certain kinds of obscene, pornographic materials are prohibited. Libel and slander are restricted as well.

When the Court considers the constitutionality of a law that seems to impinge on a constitutionally protected right, such as a law that would prohibit certain kinds of speech, it typically subjects the law to “strict scrutiny”: It demands that the government show that the prohibition in question is necessary to accomplish some “compelling” goal or purpose.

That is a very demanding test, and few laws can satisfy it, which is why the Supreme Court has struck down so many laws limiting speech, including the ban on making political protests at funerals.

We know, therefore that the Second Amendment cannot be absolute. And the Supreme Court made that point explicitly in the Heller case, adding that “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.”

In the wake of the Heller and McDonald rulings, some advocates for gun rights have brought lawsuits in the hope that the lower federal courts would interpret those rulings broadly and strike down other firearms restrictions.

For the most part, however, the lower courts have moved cautiously, as did the two federal courts that affirmed the constitutionality of New York’s requirement that people seeking a permit to carry arms outside their homes must “show cause” — provide some special reason — why the permit should be granted.

In that case, Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, the appeals court paid careful attention to the Supreme Court’s rulings in Heller and McDonald but also looked closely at the long history of firearms regulations and at numerous other cases, from other states and other federal courts, dealing with gun laws.

It concluded that the Second Amendment granted individuals the greatest protection in their homes, but that it permitted governments wider latitude to regulate guns in public. Instead of applying “strict scrutiny,” it applied an “intermediate” standard, asking whether the restriction is “substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental purpose,” and it found that New York’s law met the test.

Although it will be frustrating to all those who have strong opinions about just what the Second Amendment does and does not protect, the Supreme Court’s decision not to act here represents the wiser course.

Every time the Court extends a fundamental right, it limits the political process. Moreover, its rulings must stand until the Court itself repudiates them or, what is still less likely, the Constitution is amended to require a different result. Those considerations argue for caution.

Moreover, every lower court that has to confront these questions brings to light new information and new arguments. As the process of litigation unfolds in the lower courts, we may find that a consensus forms, or we may find sharp divisions that the Supreme Court will need to resolve.

Until then, however, the Supreme Court should allow our legal system to do its job. As the Court itself noted in Heller, our First Amendment jurisprudence has taken more than a hundred years to develop. Heller is only five years old. In due time, its full implications will be revealed. But not next year.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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