What is a “sensitive place”?

January 24th, 2011

Eugene Volokh links to GeorgiaCarry.org v. Georgia from the Middle District of Georgia, in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of a ban on concealed carry in a church, even if the Church wishes to permit carry. Volokh has a good summary of the case. One of the more noteworthy elements of the case is the Court did not simply rely on the “sensitive places” dicta to discard the case. In fact, the Court took a more circumspect view towards defining sensitive places:

The trend in the Eleventh Circuit has been to subject the challenged regulation to no further means-ends scrutiny if it falls on the Heller list or is easily linked to a regulation on the list, see Rozier, 598 F.3d at 771; White, 593 F.3d at 1205. Given, however, that the Supreme Court did not indicate why a certain place might be considered “sensitive” for purposes of prohibiting firearms, the Court is hesitant to accept that whatever “sensitive” might mean, it must include places of worship. See United States v. Dorosan, 350 Fed. Appx. 874, 875-76 (5th Cir. 2009) (positing that a parking lot belonging to the USPS was a sensitive place); United States v. Masciandaro, 648 F. Supp. 2d 779, 790 (E.D. Va. 2009) (“Although Heller does not define ‘sensitive places,’ the examples given – schools and government buildings – plainly suggest that motor vehicles on National Park land fall within any sensible definition of a ‘sensitive place.’”). Schools and government buildings do not immediately suggest any unifying theme or greater purpose that would go unserved if places of worship were not included, nor have Defendants suggested one.12 Given the indeterminacy of what the Supreme Court intended to capture with the term “sensitive places,” the Court finds that the better analytical approach is to lay aside the Heller list for the moment, to assume that Georgia’s law burdens conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment, and to test whether the State can make the necessary showing to demonstrate that categorically prohibiting the possession of firearms in places of worship is permissible. See Marzzarella, 614 F.3d at 93-95.

The problem with that approach, as previously discussed, lies in the indeterminacy of what the Supreme Court intended to capture with the term “sensitive places.” Defendants suggest that a place might be considered sensitive for any number of reasons. Certainly true. A place, such as a school, might be considered sensitive because of the people found there. Other places, such as government buildings, might be considered sensitive because of the activities that take place there. A reasonable argument can be made that places of worship are also sensitive places because of the activities that occur there. Indeed, the prior intermediate scrutiny analysis suggests as much. In the absence of clearer guidance as to what the Supreme Court meant to capture within the net of “sensitive places”; however, the Court concludes that the safer approach for now is the one taken – assuming that possession at a place of worship is within the Second Amendment guarantee and applying intermediate scrutiny.

Bypassing the sensitive places dicta, the Court proceeds to apply some form of intermediate scrutiny, and proceeds to uphold the statute. This opinion is noteworthy, though, in that it could have easily relied on a broad notion of sensitive places to uphold the constitutionality of the ban. The opinion also has a decent explanation of the current Second Amendment precedents from the various circuits.