Fourth Circuit Remands for further hearing on Constitutionality of Misdemeanants Firearm Ban

December 30th, 2010

In United States v. Chester, the Fourth Circuit remanded a case considering the constitutionality of Section 922(g)(9) permanent disarmament of all domestic violent misdemeanants.

From Chief Judge Traxler’s opinion:

The sole issue presented in this appeal is whether William Samuel Chester’s conviction for illegal possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) abridges his right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment in light of District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008). We vacate the decision below and remand for further proceedings….

We cannot conclude on this record that the government has carried its burden of establishing a reasonable fit between the important object of reducing domestic gun violence and § 922(g)(9)’s permanent disarmament of all domestic violence misdemeanants.  The government has offered numerous plausible reasons why the disarmament of domestic violence misdemeanants is substantially related to an important government goal; however, it has not attempted to offer sufficient evidence to establish a substantial relationship between § 922(g)(9) and an important governmental goal.  Having established the appropriate standard of review, we think it best to remand this case to afford the government an opportunity to shoulder its burden and Chester an opportunity to respond.  Both sides should have an opportunity to present their evidence and their arguments to the district court in the first instance.

Here is how the Court characterized the “presupmtively lawful” dicta from Heller.

Federal felon dispossession laws, for example, were not on the books until the twentieth century, and the historical evidence and scholarly writing on whether felons were protected by the Second Amendment at the time of its ratification is inconclusive. But even if the listed regulations were not historical limitations on the scope of the Second Amendment, the Court could still have viewed the regulatory measures as “presumptively lawful” if it believed they were valid on their face under any level of means-end scrutiny applied.5

5 Other courts have found Heller’s list of “presumptively lawful” firearm regulations susceptible to two meanings. See United States v. Marzzarella, 614 F.3d 85, 91 (3rd Cir. 2010) (“We recognize the phrase ‘presumptively lawful’ could have different meanings under newly enunciated Second Amendment doctrine. On the one hand, this language could be read to suggest the identified restrictions are presumptively lawful because they regulate conduct outside the scope of the Second Amendment. On the other hand, it may suggest the restrictions are presumptively lawful because they pass muster under any standard of scrutiny.”); Skoien, 587 F.3d at 808 (“[I]t is not entirely clear whether this language should be taken to suggest that the listed firearms regulations are presumed to fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment right as it was understood at the time of the framing or that they are presumptively lawful under even the highest standard of scrutiny applicable to laws that encumber constitutional rights.”).

The Court places the burden on the government, in contrast with the burden the 7th Circuit En Banc court placed on the defendant. The Court relies on the Third Circuit opinion in Marzzarella and Judge Sykes’s now-vacated panel opinion in Skoien.

In view of the fact that Heller ultimately found the District’s gun regulations invalid “under any standard of scrutiny,” it appears to us that the Court would apply some form of heightened constitutional scrutiny if a historical evaluation did not end the matter. The government bears the burden of justifying its regulation in the context of heightened scrutiny review; using Heller’s list of “presumptively lawful regulatory measures” to find § 922(g)(9) constitutional by analogy would relieve the government of its burden.

Thus, a two-part approach to Second Amendment claims seems appropriate under Heller, as explained by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, see Marzzarella, 614 F.3d at 89, and Judge Sykes in the now-vacated Skoien panel opinion, see 587 F.3d at 808-09. The first question is “whether the challenged law imposes a burden on conduct falling within the scope of the Second Amendment’s guarantee.” Id. This historical inquiry seeks to determine whether the conduct at issue was understood to be within the scope of the right at the time of ratification. See Heller, 128 S. Ct. at 2816. If it was not, then the challenged law is valid. See Marzzarella, 614 F.3d at 89. If the challenged regulation burdens conduct that was within the scope of the Second Amendment as historically understood, then we move to the second step of applying an appropriate form of means-end scrutiny. See id. Heller left open the issue of the standard of review, rejecting only rational-basis review. Accordingly, unless the conduct at issue is not protected by the Second Amendment at all, the Government bears the burden of justifying the constitutional validity of the law.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Davis thought this issue was solved clearly by the 7th Circuit’s en banc opinion in Skoien.

In light of the highly persuasive decision of the Seventh Circuit in United States v. Skoien, 614 F.3d 638 (7th Cir. 2010) (en banc), pet. for cert. pending, sustaining the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), the district court should have no difficulty in concluding that the application of § 922(g)(9) to offenders such as Chester passes Second Amendment scrutiny, exactly as district courts have already concluded. See United States v. Smith, 2010 WL 3743842 (S.D.W. Va. Sept. 20, 2010) (applying Skoien and sustaining statute); United States v. Staten, 2010 WL 3476110 (S.D.W. Va. Sept. 2, 2010) (same)….

I can foresee no difficulty for the district court in sustaining the constitutional validity of the application of § 922(g)(9) in this case.  Nevertheless, under the circumstances of the law’s understandably slow evolutionary course of development, I am content to give Appellant Chester a full opportunity to offer evidence and argument showing the district court how and why he escapes the law’s bite.

For my criticisms of the Skoien en banc opinion, and my praise of Judge Sykes’s dissenting opinion (see herehere, and here).

H/T Sentencing Blog.