Decisional Minimalism and the Judicial Evaluation of Gun Regulations
Document Type Article
In District of Columbia v. Heller, a sharply divided United States Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.” Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, made clear that the Court’s recognition of this right, which it found inconsistent with the District of Columbia’s restriction on the possession of handguns in the home, did not mean that persons have “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” The Court chose not to delineate “the full scope of the Second Amendment,” and also “declin[ed] to establish a level of scrutiny for evaluating Second Amendment restrictions.” The majority opinion in Heller is significant both for the constitutional right it established and for the questions of scope and operation associated with that right that it left unresolved. Justice Scalia’s choice to write this “narrow” opinion has “unleashed a flood of litigation” in the lower courts, as litigants and judges have confronted the uncertainty purposely left by the Supreme Court majority. Woollard v. Sheridan, a test case brought in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland by Raymond Woollard and the Second Amendment Foundation, is one of many such cases to be presented in recent months. While Justice Scalia’s Heller decision relies on familiar conservative interpretive methods, including a hard-edged textual analysis and a heavy dose of originalism, in order to find a “core” right of individual citizens to possess guns in their homes for self defense, his further choice to avoid resolving significant questions of scope and operation reflects a different form of conservative constitutional jurisprudence, which professor Cass Sunstein has termed “Burkean minimalism.” To the extent that the Supreme Court embraced Burkean minimalism in Heller, the tradition of balanced handgun regulation in the states generally, and the more particular regulatory practice in Maryland, ought to count significantly in both the determination of the scope of the right and in its operation. The exercise of judicial review under these circumstances should be characterized by a deferential stance toward the sensitive public policy judgments reached decades ago and maintained over the years by officials in the legislative and executive branches of state government. Many lower courts confronting these issues have explicitly or implicitly recognized the essentially conservative nature of this developing jurisprudence, its Burkean incrementalism. The District Court in Woollard chose a more aggressive path, and in that respect misread the important cautionary signals that the Supreme Court majority has provided.