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Where the Miller Court Erred


The following commentary is excepted from:

James J. Featherstone, Richard E. Gardiner, Robert Dowlut, "The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution Guarantees an Individual Right To Keep and Bear Arms", 97th Cong., 2d Sess. 83-109 (Comm. print 1982).

The heart of the Court's ruling is found at the beginning of the opinion; it states:

In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense. (Emphasis added.) 307 U.S. at 178.
Two independent thoughts are expressed here: one, that for the keeping and bearing of a firearm to be constitutionally protected, that firearm's possession or use must have some reasonable relationship to the preservation of a well regulated militia; and two, that in this case, the Court would not take judicial notice that a short-barrelled shotgun met such a test. It remanded the case to the trial court for the taking of evidence on that question. The Court's first point, that the right to keep and bear an arm is dependent on the firearm's military value, is faulty, however, because the Court failed to consider fully the common law, and misinterpreted cited authorities. Rather, the Court only briefly discussed the common law and, moreover, did not consider the history of the adoption of the Second Amendment, both of which support the proposition that the Second Amendment guarantees and protects a fundamental individual right. As to the misinterpretation of cited authorities, a result undoubtedly of the one-sided argument, one important example should suffice.

In support of its position that the Second Amendment's protection and guarantee was limited to "ordinary military equipment" or weapons whose use "could contribute to the common defense," the Court cited one case, Aymette v. State, 21 Tenn. 154 2 Humph. 154 (1840). In Aymette, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court was construing not the Second Amendment but the provision of Tennessee's constitution guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms, a provision which, unlike the Second Amendment, spoke of each citizen's right to keep and bear arms only as it related to the common defense. The Tennessee court thus reasoned that not all objects which could conceivably be used as weapons were protected by the Tennessee Constitution, but only those weapons "such as usually employed in civilized warfare." Id. at 158. This limitation is not, however, applicable to the Second Amendment since the First Congress, while debating what ultimately became the Second Amendment, emphatically rejected the " common defense" language upon which the Aymette decision turned. It is plain, therefore, that the interpretation of the Second Amendment in Miller is more limited than it should be and that the Second Amendment protects the keeping and bearing of all types of arms which could be carried by individuals. Moreover, the rejection of the "common defense" limitation signified the Framers' intention that the constitutional guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms was not inextricably tied to a militia nexus, but existed independently of it. Even accepting, however, that a militia or common defense nexus was necessary, Aymette went on to say that, " The citizens have an unqualified right to keep the weapon." Id. at 160.

One other comment should be made about Aymette. What Judge Green was discussing when he said that the legislature could pass laws concerning arms was that laws could be enacted which would punish the misuse of such arms. As an example, Judge Green noted that the legislature could punish a set of ruffians for entering a theatre or a church with drawn swords, guns, and fixed bayonets to the terror of the audience; he went on to observe, moreover, that "the citizens have an unqualified right to keep the weapon" and to bear it except to "terrify the people, or for purposes of private assassination." Id. at 160.

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