Hot Docs: No right to bear arms for unlawful self-defense in home, appeals court rules

April 11, 2013

guns and drugsBack in January, we featured a series on the current landscape of gun control and ownership laws. 

A large portion of the discussion focused on the implications of District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, two landmark Supreme Court rulings on the issue from 2008 and 2010, respectively.

Heller held that the Second Amendment enshrined an individual right to possess and use a firearm in defense of one’s own home, and McDonald held that this right is enforceable against the individual states.

The expansiveness of this right has been debated, much more heavily in recent months after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Some courts have already imposed restrictions on this right, however.

In a recent ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1), which imposes significant criminal sanctions on those possessing a firearm in furtherance of “any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.”

The law was challenged by Ron Bryant, who was convicted under the law (along with another count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine).

The story begins in March 2007, when officers from the Rochester Police Department searched Bryant’s residence and found cocaine, drug paraphernalia (two digital scales, a stock of “new plastic bags of assorted sizes,” and large amounts of cash), and “a loaded 12 gauge Remington shotgun.”

According to a statement by Bryant, the cocaine actually belongs to his roommate, who sells it, but Bryant candidly admitted (for some reason) that if his roommate “is not home and someone wants some cocaine I will sell that cocaine.”

Bryant also stated that the reason why he has a shotgun is because he was robbed two months after he moved in.

The jury found Bryant guilty on both counts (the drug charge and the firearm possession charge) on March 10, 2008. 

Hot Doc: U.S. v. Bryant

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

In June 2008, the Supreme Court decided Heller.  Three months later, before sentencing occurred, Bryant filed a motion to vacate his conviction for possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, arguing that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied, violated his Second Amendment right under Heller.

Bryant specifically argued that the “conclusion to be drawn from” Heller was “that any restrictions on gun possession that ‘burden the right of self-defense’ by imposing serious criminal sanctions for firearms possession in the home are constitutionally suspect.”

Bryant asserted that, since he legally purchased the shotgun for self-protection (prompted by his being robbed), and his ownership of the shotgun, aside from the drug trafficking element, was otherwise legal, § 924(c) was unconstitutional as applied to him, since it infringed on his right to self-defense within his home.

The district court was unpersuaded by his arguments, denied his motion, and sentenced Bryant to 21 months’ imprisonment on the drug conviction, and a consecutive sentence of 60 months’ imprisonment on the unlawful firearms possession conviction.

Bryant appealed, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, after considering the arguments, affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The appeals court acknowledged that Heller had indeed found that the Second Amendment codified a pre-existing right to possess and use a firearm in defense of one’s own home.

However, the court distinguished Bryant’s ownership of his firearm from that protected by the Second Amendment under Heller.  Namely, the court of appeals noted that Heller’s holding only enshrined a right to lawful use of firearms for self-defense.

The Second Circuit found that “the Second Amendment does not protect the unlawful purpose of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime,” even if the gun is to be used for the purposes of self-defense in one’s own home.

The court further noted that the Seventh Circuit and the Ninth Circuit have made similar findings, and that both other circuits upheld the constitutionality of § 924(c) against analogous challenges.

In Bryant’s case, the court found that, although he “may have purchased and possessed the Remington shotgun for the ‘core lawful purpose’ of self-defense,” “once Bryant engaged in ‘an illegal home business,’ he was no longer a law-abiding citizen using the firearm for a lawful purpose,” and the Second Amendment no longer provided him with any protection.

The Second Circuit’s new rule, following the examples set by the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, is that a citizen is only entitled to gun ownership rights under the Second Amendment so long as he or she remains law-abiding.

In other words, if you want to keep your right to bear arms, don’t do anything that could be construed as a crime.