Supreme Court Declines Review In Case Involving San Francisco Handgun Law
In a setback for the gun rights movement, the Supreme Court has let stand a San Francisco law that places tough restrictions on handgun ownership.
The Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal today in a case arising out of a challenge to San Francisco’s law requiring that handguns be kept locked up, or with a trigger lock installed:
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court Monday let stand a San Francisco gun-control ordinance, turning down a chance to expand the right to keep handguns at home for self-defense.
Six San Francisco residents had challenged the city’s ordinance requiring handguns be kept in a locked box or disabled with a trigger lock, contending the law violated their rights and was at odds with 2008 and 2010 landmark gun rights rulings. Federal courts in California have declined to strike down San Francisco’s law.
In 2008, the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller voided a Washington, D. C., ordinance that also had required handguns kept at home be stored under lock and key, among other restrictions.
San Francisco in court briefs said “handguns stored in modern lockboxes can quickly and easily be retrieved in the event of a self-defense emergency.” The city argued the ordinance reduced the risks of suicide, unintentional shootings and gun thefts.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, filed a dissent saying the court should have taken the case.
As Lyle Denniston notes, this is the latest in a series of denied appeals from the Justices in Second Amendment cases and it raises real questions about just how far the rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Heller are going to reach:
Raising significant new questions about how much protection the Constitution’s Second Amendment actually gives to gun owners, the Supreme Court on Monday left intact a local ordinance that restricts access to guns even within one’s own home. The denial of review drew a fervent dissent from two Justices, who argued that the Court is narrowing the amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.”
The Court acted on the gun case while granting review of three more cases for decisions in its next Term, including a new test case of major significance on the right of a group of individuals to band together to file a joint lawsuit seeking a common remedy — “class actions” for consumers and workers and “collective actions” for workers.
The refusal to review the case of Jackson v. City and County of San Francisco was the latest in a string of such orders, declining to clarify the personal right to have a gun, first established seven years ago and extended nationwide five years ago, but not explained further in the years since. Once again, as is its custom, the Court did not explain why it was choosing to remain on the sidelines.
In the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court had ruled that the right created by the Second Amendment included a right to have a gun for one’s own use in self-defense, at least within the home, and with such a weapon in a condition allowing it to be quickly used. That is the right that the Court said applied all across the country, in the 2010 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago. But McDonald marked the last time the Court had spoken on the amendment’ s reach.
Much of the uncertainty that has spread to courts across the country has involved the core question whether the personal right extends anywhere beyond the home. That has been the issue that the Justices have most often declined to sort out. The San Francisco case, however, sought to bring the Court back inside the home, to determine how far government could go to regulate access to a weapon there.
Under the city-county ordinance at issue, a handgun in the home could be carried on the body of the person, but otherwise had to be stored in a locked container or else disabled with a trigger lock. The right to carry a handgun within the home was restricted to those over the age of eighteen.
Lower federal courts had upheld those restrictions, despite gun-owners’ claims that the ordinance directly contradicted the access that the Court supposedly had assured in the Heller decision. The main rationale for upholding the ordinance was the need to prevent gun-related accidents within the home.
The Second Amendment has been the subject of much litigation in the lower Federal Courts around the country since Heller and McDonald were handed down, including decisions in Chicago striking down a law that heavily regulated gun sales, a pair of decisions related to the District of Columbia’s concealed carry laws, and a Ninth Circuit decision that struck down California’s concealed carry law. The Supreme Court, however, has been relatively quiet in this area and has not accepted a single Second Amendment case for review since McDonald was issued five years ago. In that time, though, the Court has declined to accept appeals in several cases where lower courts had upheld restrictive gun laws, including its 2013 decision to decline an appeal in a case involving New York State’s laws regarding carrying guns in public and a 2014 decision to decline an appeal of a similarly restrictive New Jersey law regarding carrying concealed weapons.
To some extent, it has seemed as though the Court’s decision to hold back on accepting appeals in cases involving concealed carry laws may be motivated in no small part by a desire to let the Circuit Courts of Appeal hash out the issue a little more before weighing in with a ruling that would apply nationwide. Given the fact that these laws tend to vary from state to state, with some states being far more restrictive than others regarding the ability to carry concealed weapons and some states even allowing open carry of weapons in at least some public spaces, this explanation made sense, but today’s development does require some reevaluation of that interpretation and raises questions about just where Heller and McDonald stand at this point even though the ideological balance on the Court has not shifted significantly in the time since those decisions were handed down.
If there was any recent case that one would have expected the Justices to accept for review, it would have been this case involving San Francisco’s law. Rather than dealing with concealed carry or any other issues that the Court has yet to weigh in on, the law seems to go straight to the heart of the holdings in Heller and McDonald in the way that it seeks to regulate the use of firearms inside one’s home. The ability to be able to defend oneself at home was at the core of the Heller decision, after all, and the Plaintiffs in this case presented a fairly persuasive argument that the San Francisco law’s requirement that a weapon be locked away even in the house unless it was being worn on the person of the owner substantially impairs the rights that Heller was seeking to protect because it impedes the ability of homeowner to defend themselves in a situation where unlocking a safe or a trigger lock would arguably take longer than necessary in an emergency. The other question, of course, is exactly how San Francisco purports to enforce this law since there is clearly no authority for law enforcement to demand entry to a home at random period of times just to see if someone is complying with this law. Declining to accept this appeal would seem to suggest that there is a majority on the Court that views Heller and McDonald rather narrowly.
Justice Thomas’s and Scalia took the uncommon step of filing a dissent to the denial of the certiorari, which raises many of the issues I discuss above, but what this tells us is that there were likely only two votes in favor of accepting this case for review. While this is not as big a setback for the gun rights movement as if the Court had accepted the appeal and upheld the law, it is yet another piece of evidence in favor of the idea that the Supreme Court is going to let the lower courts continue to deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis and that the hopes of some and fears of others that Heller and McDonald would lead to a world where most gun control laws were struck down will not come to pass.
Here is the Thomas/Scalia dissent: