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[ Originally published as Report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., The Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 171-175 (1982) ("Other Views"). Reproduced in the 1982 Senate Report, pg. 171-175, with permission. The article reproduced in the Senate Report is an abridgement of an article appearing elsewhere. No reference to the original is provided. Only the Introduction and Part 2 were included by the Subcommittee, and footnotes were omitted.]

42 West 44th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036

Gun Control Legislation

By The Committee on Federal Legislation


Since the enactment of the Gun Control Act of 1968 there has been a substantial increase in the incidence of gun-related crimes and it has become evident that the existing system of law is inadequate. Efforts have been underway in both Houses of Congress to enact further gun control legislation and the Executive Branch has indicated support for stronger gun control. Both the Subcommittee on Crime of the House Committee on the Judiciary and the Subcommittee on Crime and Juvenile Delinquency of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary have accumulated a substantial factual record on which to base legislation.

We believe that the contribution of handguns to the current increase in homicide and other violent crimes requires immediate and comprehensive action. In our opinion, the continued existence of an unwarranted supply of handguns is an underlying factor in the decline of our major urban centers. This Committee does not find any substantial justification for the continued widespread public possession of handguns, and, accordingly, we strongly endorse the legislative proposals calling for a prohibition on the manufacture, importation, sale, and private possession of handguns.1 Whether or not our recommendations are politically feasible at this moment in time, we are of the firmly held conviction that a complete ban on handguns should be the ultimate objective of any new federal gun control legislation.

This report is divided into four parts. Part I describes the current federal law and the congressional proposals for change. Part II examines the constitutional bases for Congress legislating a prohibition on the manufacture, importation, sale, and private possession of handguns. Part III discusses the need for adopting far reaching gun control legislation. Our recommendations are contained in Part IV.(p.172)


To determine whether a federal statute restricting handguns would be constitutional, two questions must be answered: (A) Is there a constitutional right to possession of handguns which cannot be infringed by legislation, and (B) does regulation of handguns fall within the scope of any of the subjects on which Congress is empowered by the Constitution to legislate? A review of the relevant decisions demonstrates that Congress may constitutionally enact legislation restricting and prohibiting the possession of handguns by private citizens.10

A. Is There a Constitutional Right to Possess Handguns?

Debates on the merits of gun control legislation are regularly punctuated by claims of a constitutional right to possess firearms. The source of these claims is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which provides:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Although spirited controversy as to the meaning of the Second Amendment continues unabated among commentators,11 courts over a long period of time have consistently given the amendment a very narrow construction. The Second Amendment as so interpreted places no restrictions on Congress' ability to regulate handguns.

A constitutional provision concerning the right to "bear Arms" is directed at checking power. The question is what the framers of the Constitution intended. There are basically three relationships which could have been intended to be affected: (1) the individual against the world; (2) the populace against the government, whether state or federal; and (3) the state government against the federal government. The first possibility, that the framers were concerned with the right of individuals to protect their homes and their persons from whatever depredations might confront them, appears to be without historical support.12 The amendment itself speaks of the "security of a free State." The disputes have centered around the second and third possibilities.

The initial question is the proper interpretation of the term "Militia." The practice in Europe of maintaining large standing armies while prohibiting the general populace from having guns led to a preference in colonial America for the militia as the primary military force. This force would be drawn from the people and would be active only in time of military need.13

Some have argued that the militia was regarded as the populace at large--or at least those members of the populace capable of bearing arms.14 To these commentators, militia meant the "unorganized militia," so that the Second Amendment must be read as permitting the populace to maintain arms as a check against excesses of any or all government. This position is sometimes characterized as more extreme than it really is. The framers of the (p.173)Constitution need not have created a "right to revolution" or a license to band together in paramilitary organizations to have established a check on the government by permitting the populace to keep and bear arms.15 Whatever the merits of the "unorganized militia" analysis may be, however, it has never found judicial favor.

The federal courts have long regarded the Second Amendment as concerned only with the "organized militia" maintained by the states. In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruickshank16 that the Second Amendment restricted Congress alone and not state governments. More recently, in United States v. Miller,17 the Supreme Court held that Congress could regulate firearms so long as there was no evidence of a relationship between the regulation and the preservation or efficiency of the state militia. The Court said that Miller could not attack his indictment for interstate shipment of a sawed-off shotgun under the Second Amendment:

"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."18

Some have argued that the Miller case should be read narrowly, since evidence of a military use can be shown as a matter of fact for most kinds of weapons.19 However, federal courts after Miller have read the decision as requiring a showing that the challenged legislation actually interfered with the state militia. Under this standard, Second Amendment challenges to federal gun control legislation uniformly have been rejected.20

Further, even if the Second Amendment were to be interpreted to refer to an "unorganized militia," it would not follow that Congress would be barred from regulating the ownership of handguns. Such regulation would still be constitutional unless handguns were regarded as "Arms" within the meaning of the Second Amendment. It appears instead that the "Arms" of the militia were understood to consist of rifles and muskets.

In addition to the constitutional provisions and old state statutes quoted in United States v. Miller21 and other secondary sources,22 there are a number of early cases considering whether handguns are "arms" within the meaning of the Second Amendment. While the decisions are not uniform, the weight of authority is that handguns do not constitute such "Arms."23

This position is most effectively expressed in State v. Workman,24 where the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia wrote:

" regard to the kind of arms referred to in the amendment, it must be held to refer to the weapons of warfare to be used by the militia, such as swords, guns, rifles, and muskets,--arms to be used in defending the state and civil liberty,--and not pistols, bowie-knives, (p.174)brass knuckles, billies, and such other weapons as are usually employed in brawls, street fights, duels, and affrays, and are only habitually carried by bullies, blackguards, and desperadoes, to the terror of the community and the injury of the state."25

Thus, in our view, the Second Amendment poses no barrier to congressional efforts to reduce "the terror of the community and the injury of the state" by prohibiting the private possession of handguns.

B. Does Congress Have Power to Regulate the Manufacture, Possession and Sale of All Handguns?

While several congressional powers could be invoked in support of gun control legislation,26 justification is ordinarily found under Congress' power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce.27 There can be no serious dispute that certain kinds of gun-related activities--for example, interstate sales of firearms--can be regulated under the commerce clause. The disagreements arise over how far Congress may go in regulating local gun activity under its power to regulate matters "affecting" commerce.

In United States v. Bass,28 the Supreme Court recently avoided a constitutional issue concerning 18 U.S.C. § 1202, which prohibits the transportation, receipt or possession of guns by felons, by holding that proof that the prohibited conduct in each case was in commerce or affected commerce was required by the statute. Prior courts of appeals decisions had differed as to whether that statute was a constitutional exercise of the commerce power without such proof.29

However, in Perez v. United States,30 a case decided shortly before the Bass case, the Supreme Court had laid the groundwork for the power to create a federal criminal law under the commerce clause. The Perez case concerned the constitutionality of a provision in Title II of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 891 et seq., making loan sharking a federal crime. In holding that Perez had been lawfully convicted despite the absence of proof of the effect of his conduct on commerce, the Court cited a variety of reports and statistical studies providing evidentiary support for the congressional finding that, in the aggregate, loan sharking had an effect on commerce. It concluded, therefore, that Congress could prohibit the practice regardless of the extent to which the activities of each particular loan shark may have affected commerce.

An examination of Perez and its progeny, and of other federal criminal legislation regulating local activity, points out what may have led the Supreme Court to take a very narrow position in the Bass case, namely the lack of any substantial legislative findings. In Perez, the Court put great emphasis on the findings made by Congress of the impact of loan-sharking on interstate commerce, even as a local activity, and on the very substantial evidence which was available to Congress to support those findings. In Bass, in contrast, there was virtually no legislative history to guide the Court in its interpretation of congressional intentions.

The implication of the limitation on Congress' attempted exercise of (p.175)power in the Bass case is that if gun control legislation is supported by substantial documentation and carefully drawn congressional findings concerning the effects of the proscribed activity on interstate commerce generally, the Supreme Court would sustain the exercise of power under the commerce clause even if the activity of specific individuals were purely local in nature.

In a number of cases involving federal gun control legislation arising after Bass, courts have followed Perez to uphold the power of Congress to regulate firearms felonies without a showing in each case of a nexus with interstate commerce.31 In United States v. Nelson,32 the Fifth Circuit affirmed a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6), which prohibits the making of false statements in connection with the acquisition of a firearm, in spite of a failure to show a nexus between the defendant's false statements to the gun dealer and interstate commerce. Although the individual activity was clearly local, the court found that under Perez the Congress does have the power to regulate an intrastate activity, an isolated instance of which may have no direct connection with interstate commerce, because that intrastate activity in the aggregate does impose a burden on interstate commerce.33

The decision in Nelson leaves open the question whether Congress has the power under the Perez theory to regulate possession of a firearm. It could be argued that the manufacture and sale of firearms presents a stronger case for federal regulation since a potential impact on interstate commerce is discernable, while possession of a firearm could be an entirely and perpetually local activity in a given instance. Such an argument ignores the aggregate effect on commerce of a substantial number of people possessing firearms. In an analogous situation, regulation of the possession of narcotics and other controlled substances under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 844, and predecessor statutes, courts have upheld the regulation without a showing in each case of a nexus with interstate commerce.

In Deyo v. United States,34 for example, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a conviction for possession and sale of a drug against the contention of the defendant that the conviction was invalid because there had been no proof of a connection between the defendant's activities and interstate commerce. The court described at length the congressional findings supporting federal control of the possession of these drugs. The court concluded that effective interstate regulation was not possible if intrastate transactions were not also regulated.35

The conclusion to be drawn from the narcotics possession cases is that if it can be shown through proper congressional findings that possession of handguns as a class of activity has an effect on interstate commerce, then individual possession could be legitimately proscribed without any showing in each case of a nexus with interstate commerce, notwithstanding that a particular weapon had never been in interstate commerce. Indeed it is the possession of handguns that can be viewed as being responsible for their manufacture, importation and sale. Thus, if undertaken after congressional findings of effect on interstate commerce based on substantial investigation, federal legislation banning the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns would in our view be authorized by the commerce clause.