Dissenting opinion of McDonald v. Chicago engages with historians





Editor's note: This is an excerpt from the dissenting opinion from McDonald v. Chicago, noteworthy for its engagement with the historical community.

JUSTICE BREYER, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG and JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR join, dissenting....

Since Heller, historians, scholars, and judges have continued to express the view that the Court's historical account was flawed. See, e.g., Konig, Why the Second Amendment Has a Preamble: Original Public Meaning and the Political Culture of Written Constitutions in Revolutionary America, 56 UCLA L. Rev. 1295 (2009); Finkelman, It Really Was About a Well Regulated Militia, 59 Syracuse L. Rev. 267 (2008); P. Charles, The Second Amendment: The Intent and Its Interpretation by the States and the Supreme Court (2009); Merkel, The District of Columbia v. Heller and Antonin Scalia's Perverse Sense of Originalism, 13 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 349 (2009); Kozuskanich, Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms, 29 J. Early Republic 585 (2009); Cornell, St. George Tucker's Lecture Notes, the Second Amendment, and Originalist Methodology, 103 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1541 (2009); Posner, In Defense of Looseness: The Supreme Court and Gun Control, New Republic, Aug. 27, 2008, pp. 32-35; see also Epstein, A Structural Interpretation of the Second Amendment: Why Heller is (Probably) Wrong on Originalist Grounds, 59 Syracuse L. Rev. 171 (2008).

Consider as an example of these critiques an amici brief filed in this case by historians who specialize in the study of the English Civil Wars. They tell us that Heller misunderstood a key historical point. See Brief for English/Early American Historians as Amici Curiae (hereinafter English Historians' Brief) (filed by 21 professors at leading universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia). Heller's conclusion that "individual self-defense" was "the central component" of the Second Amendment's right "to keep and bear Arms" rested upon its view that the Amendment "codified a pre-existing right" that had "nothing whatever to do with service in a militia." 554 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 26, 19-20). That view in turn rested in significant part upon Blackstone having described the right as "`the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence,'" which reflected the provision in the English Declaration of Right of 1689 that gave the King's Protestant "`subjects'" the right to "`have Arms for their defence suitable to their Conditions, and as allowed by law.'" Id., at ___ (slip op., at 19-20) (quoting 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 140 (1765) (hereinafter Blackstone) and 1 W. & M., c. 2, §7, in 3 Eng. Stat. at Large 441 (1689)). The Framers, said the majority, understood that right "as permitting a citizen to `repe[l] force by force' when `the intervention of society in his behalf, may be too late to prevent an injury.'" 554 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 21) (quoting St. George Tucker, 1 Blackstone's Commentaries 145-146, n. 42 (1803)).

The historians now tell us, however, that the right to which Blackstone referred had, not nothing, but everything, to do with the militia. As properly understood at the time of the English Civil Wars, the historians claim, the right to bear arms "ensured that Parliament had the power" to arm the citizenry: "to defend the realm" in the case of a foreign enemy, and to "secure the right of `selfpreservation,'" or "self-defense," should "the sovereign usurp the English Constitution." English Historians' Brief 3, 8-13, 23-24 (emphasis added). Thus, the Declaration of Right says that private persons can possess guns only "as allowed by law." See id., at 20-24. Moreover, when Blackstone referred to "`the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence,'" he was referring to the right of the people "to take part in the militia to defend their political liberties," and to the right of Parliament (which represented the people) to raise a militia even when the King sought to deny it that power. Id., at 4, 24-27 (emphasis added) (quoting 1 Blackstone 140). Nor can the historians find any convincing reason to believe that the Framers had something different in mind than what Blackstone himself meant. Compare Heller, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 21-22) with English Historians' Brief 28-40. The historians concede that at least one historian takes a different position, see id., at 7, but the Court, they imply, would lose a poll taken among professional historians of this period, say, by a vote of 8 to 1.

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