The Supreme Court’s Sensitive Places

          Lawyers like other people have always had concerns about sensitive places, such as bikini wax zones, Adam’s apples, and bunions. Now, however, they will be litigating about different kinds of “sensitive zones,” for the Supreme Court in its recent gun case has indicated that, although there is a constitutional right to carry firearms in public, their presence can be restricted in “sensitive zones.”

In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court recognized (created?) a right that had not been established in the first two centuries of the nation: Ordinary, law-abiding citizen now had the right under the Second Amendment to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. Last week in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen the Court expanded that right to carrying a handgun for self-defense outside the home. The Court found a New York law that required a showing of a special need to pack a pistol in public, whose roots go back to 1905, unconstitutional.

The Court concluded that constitutional rights have the scope they were understood to have when adopted, and that the definition “bear” in the Second Amendment naturally encompasses the right to carry a handgun in public. Therefore, they reasoned, the state must justify any restriction on that presumptive right. The majority emphatically rejected what most lower courts had done when they had considered the interests a gun restriction promotes. Instead, SCOTUS decided that a limitation on carrying can only be constitutionally upheld if it falls within the country’s historical tradition of firearm regulation no matter what good purposes are served by the gun safety measure. So, after reviewing history without considering the benefits the law serves (surprise, surprise), Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, stated “[W]e conclude that respondents have not met their burden to identify an American tradition justifying the State’s proper-cause requirement.” And so now there is a constitutional right for you to carry a handgun next to me in Times Square. And for me to carry a handgun next to you.

          In the recent Bruen case, however, the Court suggested that there were exceptions to this right. The 2008 Heller decision had discussed longstanding laws forbidding guns in “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings. Thomas in Bruen stated, “Although the historical record yields relatively few 18th and 19th century ‘sensitive places’ where weapons were altogether prohibited—e.g., legislative assemblies, polling places, and courthouses—we are also aware of no disputes regarding the lawfulness of such prohibitions. We therefore can assume it settled that these locations were ‘sensitive places’ where arms carrying could be prohibited consistent with Second Amendment. And courts can use analogies to those historical regulations of ‘sensitive places’ to determine those modern regulations prohibiting the carry of firearms in new and analogous sensitive places are constitutionally permissible.”

          And, thus, lawyers and others will be occupied with the question of what defines “sensitive places” for Second Amendment purposes. The Court did not attempt any comprehensive definition of “sensitive places,” but it rejected New York’s claim that they include the places where people congregate, and where law enforcement is presumptively available. The streets and parks of your town are not such zones. Apparently, however, schools, government buildings, and polling places are.

          But hold on. The Bruen opinion seemingly relied on a law review article, written by David B. Kopel and Joseph G.S. Greenlee, entitled The “Sensitive Places” Doctrine: Locational Limits on the Right to Bear Arms. In finding that New York’s law was not constitutional, Thomas wrote that the most important history in understanding a right was the history shortly before and after the founding. Kopel and Greenlee’s survey of laws found few restrictions on gun carrying before the Civil War. They found no ban on firearms at legislative assemblies and wrote, “In general, Americans did not seem to mind people coming armed to attend or participate in legislative matters. Congress had no rules against legislative armament, and through the mid-nineteenth century, it was common for Congressmen to be armed.” Delaware in 1776 did prohibit guns at polling places, but the authors found no other such restriction until Reconstruction. One example does not seem like a tradition.

          Only after the Civil War did the country start to have widespread limitations on firearms: “In the half-century following the Civil War, the former slave states were the center of the gun control movement. . . . The racial subtext of Southern gun control was obvious.” Thomas in Bruen, however, stated that the history a hundred years after the founding should not bear much weight in determining our traditions in restricting guns. And yet, some of the “sensitive places” are even much more recent than Reconstruction. For example, “bans on guns in schools are, in most places, of similarly recent vintage. For most of the twentieth century, students brought guns to school. . . . When Antonin Scalia was growing up in New York City in the 1950s, he carried a rifle on the subway on his way to school, for use as a member of his school’s rifle team.” Only in 1980s and 1990s was there a widespread ban on guns at schools. The authors conclude, “Given the relatively thin historical record in support of the sensitive places doctrine, attempts to elaborate and extend the doctrine by analogy may be difficult.”

          By the current Court’s standards, then, the historical tradition of sensitive places where guns can be restricted is, in fact, inconsistent with Thomas’s assertion that we should look primarily to the years immediately before and after the founding.  The Court did not discuss the rationale for re-invoking such a doctrine. If they had, they would have had to recognize that the doctrine is based on reasoning that the Court states could not be used to justify the New York law. Kopel and Greenlee state that an 1874 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law banning the carrying of weapons into a courthouse employed the first sensitive places analysis. That court stated that access to a court is “just as sacred as the right to carry arms” and armed people at courthouses deny free access to the courts. In other words, safety and court access outweighed the right to carry arms.  Bruen , however, explicitly rejected safety concerns in considering whether New York’s law was valid.

          Using Bruen’s own historical analysis, then, there is little basis for the sensitive places doctrine. Moreover, the doctrine is based on reasoning that the Court rejects. But still the Court seems committed to preserving and perhaps extending “sensitive places.” Why? I, like many others, thought in 2008 that the Supreme Court in Heller would expand gun rights, but I was also confident that the new right would not extend to carrying guns into the Supreme Court building itself. And I am not surprised that Bruen will not allow the carrying of handguns there either. The Court may not weigh your safety or mine when the right to carry is considered, but the Supreme Court justices want to make sure that their own safety outweighs what they claim are Second Amendment rights.