Some of the hot-button issues playing out in this election year also feature on the courts’ dockets. One such issue is gun control, with cases heard in both state and federal courts.
In federal courts, uncertainty is due in part to the fact that when the Supreme Court ruled on two Second-Amendment cases a few years back, it left the door wide open for debate. True, it held categorically that gun ownership is an individual and fundamental constitutional right. But no right is absolute, and the Supremes set only the broadest parameters on how courts should interpret gun regulations. Keeping a gun in the home for self-defense must always be allowed. Possession by felons or the mentally ill may always be prohibited. That leaves a lot of room in the middle, and the Court has not sharpened those blurry gray lines since.
So the gun control debate that rages in public opinion echoes in the courts. Take the AR-15, the assault rifle that came to recent notoriety for its use in some horrific shootings. The fate of laws targeting such guns may hinge less on constitutional rights than on how a court sees the underlying facts. Some courts will call the AR-15 a military style weapon, particularly dangerous, which for all intents and purposes is never used in self-defense. Or they may note that it is a sports rifle used by people in many marksmanship competitions, one that is not that extraordinary and fires the same bullet as many other rifles. Depending on which findings of fact predominates, regulations limiting ownership of such a firearm may be upheld or struck down.
Florida has its own continuing gun debate – this one revolving around our “stand your ground” law. That law immunizes gun users from prosecution under certain circumstances. The question arose whether defendants have to prove that those circumstances were present in their case. It was decided that they did in a case flowing from a road rage incident on the way to Downtown Disney. The confrontation lasted long after the driver who first exited his vehicle retreated back to his truck in the face of the loaded gun, and the Court demanded that the second driver justify why he kept pointing his gun at them.
This is turning out to be a controversial decision. Immunity (which “stand your ground” grants) and self-defense (which must be proven through a process similar to the one the State’s Justices just designed for Stand Your Ground) are normally different concepts. Some dislike they became blurred in gun cases. Others see the concepts as alike enough not to be bothered by using comparable procedures. The legislature is reportedly feverishly debating whether to amend the law.
Law, said legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is more history than logic – it the history of nations. And so our national debate about guns plays itself out in our courtrooms too on its way to history books and public consciousness. Judges, attorneys, and litigants will help shape it.