Friday, September 2, 2011

Gun-rights victory a rural defeat?

Gun right advocates have been on the offensive in recent years, focusing their sights on overturning urban handgun bans. They have celebrated two Supreme Court victories in the past three years. The decisions struck down handgun bans serving two decidedly urban areas: Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Yet the Court opinions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010) cited the need for guns in generally rural areas to support their positions.

While the justices in the majority looked to past rural gun use to support their position, I wonder if this is also a victory for rural life? At least one justice thinks not.

Justice Antonin Scalia supplements his textual analysis of the Second Amendment in Heller with historical anecdotes of support for the right to bear arms in essentially rural areas. He references an 1856 speech from Senator Charles Sumner, who extolled the need for pioneers to have guns during the "Bleeding Kansas" conflict.

The rifle has ever been the companion of the pioneer and, under God, his tutelary protector against the red man and the beast of the forest. Never was this efficient weapon more needed in just self-defence, than now in Kansas...
Scalia argues that Sumner's opinion was in keeping with most 19th-century Americans' view that all individuals had a right to bear arms in self defense.

In McDonald, Justice Samuel Alito goes one step further and suggests the writers of the 14th amendment specifically intended to incorporate the 2nd Amendment against the states. He cites an argument raised by Senator Samuel Pomeroy during the debates surrounding enactment of the 14th amendment.

Every man ... should have the right to bear arms for the defense of himself and family and his homestead. And if the cabin door of the freedman is broken open and the intruder enters ... then should a well-loaded musket be in the hand of the occupant...
In a McDonald concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas argues the 14th Amendment's right to liberty was illusory for Southern blacks without the assurance they could bear arms in self defense against the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. (This example does not necessarily depict a rural setting, since the KKK was active in Southern cities, as well as in the countryside. However, the post-Civil War South is more evocative of rural life than a present-day Chicago)

Whether these three justices realized their anecdotes reflected rural settings is hard to tell. They do not acknowledge as much. Justice Stephen Breyer, however, fashioned dissents in both cases that took the urban-rural distinction to heart.

In Heller, he suggests the Founding Fathers would have understood the right to "keep and bear arms" included regulation of firearms in urban areas. He notes that Boston, Philadelphia and New York City had some restrictions on gun use within city limits during the colonial period. He also cites statistics suggesting much higher death rates from gun violence in urban areas compared to rural communities in the past few decades.

Breyer concludes by finding this evidence supports use of a "rational basis" standard for testing gun laws. (Scalia acknowledges Breyer's attempt to draw a distinction, but dismisses it as "interest balancing" that has no place in an enumerated constitutional right analysis.)

Ultimately, the Heller and McDonald decisions held that the 2nd Amendment includes an individual right to self defense. This holds both in rural America, as well as urban.

While the two decisions struck down urban gun legislation, Justice Breyer suggests in his McDonald dissent that the majority decision will prevent rural communities from dealing with gun violence resulting from suicides and accidents.

The decisions certainly appear to limit the ability of rural communities to regulate gun use. However, rural communities seem less inclined to do so. Professor Pruitt's Rural Rhetoric article notes that the Arizona legislature passed a gun-control law that only forbid children from carrying firearms in public in urban counties. The legislative history suggested legislators considered rural areas safer than urban ones, and that gun use is important for farming and hunting.

Guns cause problems in rural America, but rural Americans seem to be comfortable having them around (Breyer cites statistics that rural states have 60% gun ownership, compared to 15% in urban eastern states). So in that sense, the Supreme Court decisions should be considered a Pyrrhic victory for rural America.


Namora said...

I agree with Justice Breyer's dissent in both the cases. I think that Scalia and the other justices bringing up rural anecdotes is a deliberate and manipulative ploy to shift attention of the real issue. While rural areas may be more resistant to gun control laws, statistics show that these areas are worse off from the lack of handgun controls than urban areas. A recent study shows that "compared with urban settings, rural areas had a higher percentage of gun deaths from shotguns and rifles and a higher percentage from suicides and accidents (P < .01)." Lee T. Dresang, "Gun Deaths in Rural and Urban Settings: Recommendations for Prevention," available at What this study shows, moreover, is that handguns account for more than 50% of gun deaths, and suicides accounted for nearly 70% of gun deaths in both urban and rural areas.

Jason said...

Growing up in a rural community where many of my friends went hunting before school and often parked in the school parking lot with their hunting rifles still in their vehicles, I can definately agree that rural communities seem more at ease with guns.

It's a sharp contrast to the urban area I live now, where guns are often viewed as a dangerous and sinister object. Guns play a definite role for rural culture from hunting to self defense. Whether you side with Scalia or Breyer there is a solid connection between rural America and guns.

JLS said...

I also agree with Justice Breyer's dissent. I definitely think that justices (and the media and gun organizations on both sides) fall on stereotypes and generalities to make their point.

In some ways, discussions about guns in rural America remind me of discussions about seat belt use and speed limits in rural America. Although low population can create significant differences between rural and urban areas, I do not believe that fewer people makes wearing a seat belt less important or speeding and firearms less dangerous.

I come from a hunting family; my father and brother own guns and often hunt in rural Nevada and California. They also hunted in rural Mississippi and Arkansas when we lived in Tennessee. I understand the cultural value of these activities just as I understand the fear that drives some to buy a handgun for protection. However, I think we are all at a disservice when the debate focuses on stereotypes and generalities.

ScottA. said...

Because guns are viewed as important tools to rural gun owners (hunting, defense, a slaughtering tool, a way of putting sick animals out of their misery), they are very nervous about gun control laws.

In many ways this fear is unfounded. Most rural gun use is with single shot long arms; most gun control laws deal with semi to fully automatic handguns. But most rural gun owners I know view any gun control law as a slippery slope to an outright ban. So any limitation on gun control laws would be seen as one more bit of legal protection for their own gun use.

You would be hard pressed to find a rural gun owner who wouldn't see both Supreme Court decisions as a rural victory.