Hot Docs: Appeals court rules that gun rights don’t trump property rights

July 26, 2012

Guns at ChurchOn July 20, 2012, the morning after the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Georgia law that banned carrying concealed firearms into one of eight different locations, with the one at issue being a church.

How is the coincidence of these two events significant?

In the aftermath of the Aurora tragedy, many gun rights proponents argued that, had concealed weapons been allowed in the movie theater, the alleged shooter would have thought twice before deciding on his course of action (or that an armed moviegoer could have shot the shooter).

Nearly identical arguments were advanced by the plaintiffs in the Georgia law case: “that they would like to carry a handgun in a place of worship for the protection either of themselves, their family, their flock, or other members of the Tabernacle.”

This contention was used as part of a rather unexpected legal claim: that the law violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the law “interferes with [the plaintiffs’] free exercise of religion by prohibiting them from engaging in activities in a place of worship when those activities are permitted throughout the state.”

The problem is that, as the court pointed out, that’s just not how the Free Exercise clause works.

If it did, the First Amendment would allow all activities inside of a place of worship if they were also allowed outside.

Instead, a plausible Free Exercise clause claim must allege that a law or other state action burdens a “sincerely-held religious belief.”

The closest that the plaintiffs came to alleging such a burden was the aforementioned argument about the plaintiffs using guns to protect themselves and other churchgoers.

The court wasn’t convinced, since the plaintiffs didn’t tie this in to any religious beliefs, and thus dismissed the claim.

Hot Doc: GeorgiaCarry.Org. Inc. v. Georgia

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The second claim, though not as untenable, didn’t fare any better.

This claim was a more traditional constitutional challenge to a restrictive gun law: claiming that the law infringed upon the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Thanks to a pair of 2010 Supreme Court rulings – District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago – the right is specifically recognized by the judiciary.

Despite these sweeping new protections for gun ownership, the court of appeals upheld the law.

Taking a page out of the Book of Scalia, the appeals court went through the history of the right to bear arms.

Actually, that’s what they said that they were doing, but the historical analysis that followed was only tangentially related to gun rights.

Instead, it was a discussion of the historical context of private property rights, which was evidently prompted because the court decided to frame the question as whether an individual’s right to bear arms supersedes another’s private property rights.

To the court’s credit, that’s a very apt way of viewing the issue: the law forbids bringing firearms to certain locations (besides churches, courthouses, prisons, mental health facilities, and nuclear power facilities are included) without complying with security or management personnel’s direction at the location.

In essence, the court found, the plaintiffs argued that they should be able to bring firearms onto the private property of another without their consent.

The appeals court rightfully rejected this argument, holding that it was not going “to destroy one cornerstone of liberty – the right to enjoy one’s private property – in order to expand another – the right to bear arms.”

Hopefully, the ruling will serve as a lesson for future judicial and legislative initiatives: the right to bear arms does not take precedence over other individual property and liberty rights.