In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller,1 lower courts have had to determine the scope of the Second Amendment’s revitalized guarantee of an individual right to bear arms.2 The majority in Heller did not exhaustively define the types of conduct and groups of individuals protected by the Second Amendment “right of the people,”3 and the circuit courts have grappled with the issue in the context of laws regulating the carrying of concealed firearms in public (“concealed carry”).4 California, for one, generally prohibits concealed carry without a license,5 and licenses are given only upon a showing of “good cause.”6 Recently, in Peruta v. County of San Diego,7 the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, upheld a “good cause” policy that required permit applicants to show exceptional need for self-defense, holding that concealed carry of a firearm in public is not in any way protected by the Second Amendment.8 Despite providing a detailed analysis of Second Amendment history within its narrow framing of the question presented, the court did not fully explain why it chose to frame the issue narrowly. The challenge of issue framing mirrors similar difficulties in other doctrinal contexts, and courts will be hard pressed to avoid it in future Second Amendment cases.
California law regulates both open carry and concealed carry of firearms in public.9 With some exceptions, open carry is generally prohibited.10 A person applying for a concealed-carry license must, among other things, show that “[g]ood cause exists for issuance of the license.”11 Counties are free to define what constitutes “good cause,”12 and San Diego and Yolo Counties, among others, require a documented showing of necessity.13 Edward Peruta, a San Diego resident, was refused a concealed-carry license under this policy.14 He filed suit with four other San Diego residents against the County and the sheriff of San Diego, alleging that the concealed-carry policy violated their Second Amendment rights.15 Adam Richards, a resident of Yolo County, challenged his county’s policy on identical grounds.16 The district courts in both cases upheld the policies under the Second Amendment, granting summary judgment for the counties.17
The Ninth Circuit reversed in Peruta’s case. Following Heller’s special emphasis on history in determining the scope of the right,18 Judge O’Scannlain19 examined textual, historical, and precedential evidence to conclude that the Second Amendment does indeed protect bearing arms for self-defense in public.20 He then argued that the regulatory scheme in California not only burdens, but also practically destroys the right; thus, as in Heller, the restriction in question would fail any form of heightened scrutiny.21 While the Second Amendment may not protect concealed carry in a vacuum, it “does require that the states permit some form of carry for self-defense outside the home.”22 The County policy in conjunction with the California statutory scheme, Judge O’Scannlain averred, worked a “near-total prohibition on bearing [arms].”23
After consolidating and rehearing Peruta’s and Richards’s cases en banc, however, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgments of the district courts. Writing for the court, Judge Fletcher24 explained that the question facing the court was only “whether the Second Amendment protects, in any degree, the ability to carry concealed firearms in public.”25 Drawing on Heller’s methodology (as had the panel opinions), the court looked to four different periods of history to settle the relationship between the Second Amendment and concealed carry.26 Throughout these periods, courts nearly uniformly upheld restrictions and even outright bans on concealed carry.27 Judge Fletcher concluded that because the Second Amendment did not protect the concealed carry of firearms, it was unnecessary to reach the issue of whether the right to bear arms extended outside the home.28 The court rejected the principal dissent’s argument that, in conjunction with California’s de facto ban on open carry, the counties’ policies violated the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment right to bear arms outside the home. Even if the Second Amendment right were to extend outside the home, and even granting for the sake of argument that California’s open-carry provisions are unconstitutional, Judge Fletcher argued, it does not follow that the counties’ concealed-carry provisions are also unlawful.29 This is because the historical evidence squarely shows that the Second Amendment does not protect concealed carry; it is improper to bring clearly unprotected rights under protection simply because other protected rights are being infringed.30
Judge Callahan wrote the principal dissent.31 Citing language in Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago32 and surveying the Second Amendment’s history, Judge Callahan argued that the right to bear arms extends outside the home.33 Evaluating the counties’ policies in light of California’s heavy restrictions on open carry, Judge Callahan found that they “obliterate the Second Amendment’s right to bear a firearm in some manner in public for self-defense.”34 Critiquing the majority opinion, the dissent argued that the court’s failure to consider the statutory context — California’s open-carry prohibitions — deviated from the Supreme Court’s prior approach to broadly defined fundamental rights in Griswold v. Connecticut,35 Lawrence v. Texas,36 and Obergefell v. Hodges37 and was “over-simplistic.”38 States must accommodate the right to bear arms in public for self-defense, and both open-carry and concealed-carry policies allow them to do so.39
Judge Silverman and Judge N. Randy Smith each wrote their own dissents.40 The former argued that the counties’ policies would fail under any form of heightened scrutiny.41 The latter argued that because of divergent framings of the issue of the case, the members of the court were talking past each other.42 Further, remand was the appropriate disposition because the district court heard the case before California’s open-carry laws assumed their strict current form.43
What divides the majority from the dissents is, in essence, a dispute over how to frame the issue presented to the court. Although the majority used history to argue that concealed carry is unprotected, it relied on a narrow framing of the legal issue to do so. That approach was firmly adopted yet given little support by the court both when describing the plaintiffs’ challenge up front and later in its historical analysis. Characterizing the question presented by a given claim is a difficult task in many contexts, but it is a problem that is likely to recur in Second Amendment cases.
As Judge Smith highlighted, two divergent views of how to understand the issue before the court were at work in Peruta. The majority viewed the challenge to the counties’ policies as implicating a putative right to concealed carry, without reference to any other form of bearing arms.44 Under this view (the “narrow framing” of the issue), the court needed only to conduct the historical analysis Heller requires to answer one question: does the Second Amendment protect a right to concealed carry in public? The principal dissent argued that the question before the court should be characterized with reference to the whole of California’s regulatory scheme, in keeping with “the prescribed method for evaluating and protecting broad constitutional guarantees.”45 In other words, the question presented in the dissent’s view was not about concealed carry per se, but rather was whether the Second Amendment permits prohibitions on the conduct of concealed carry where virtually all other forms of public carry are prohibited (the “broad framing” of the issue).46 How one frames the issue dictates the conclusions that follow from consulting “text and history” as Heller requires47: when that framing differs, each side’s arguments from history become like “two ships passing in the night.”48 A narrow framing begets a narrow historical inquiry, whereas a court looking at the larger context will evaluate the history of concealed carry contextually as well.
The majority asserted the narrow framing at the outset of the opinion but did not sufficiently defend its view. That the plaintiffs formally challenged only the county policies regulating concealed carry was sufficient for the majority to conclude that the putative right to bear arms in public was irrelevant.49 The plaintiffs “base[d] their argument on the entirety of California’s statutory scheme,” yet the court chose to examine concealed carry in isolation, with little explanation.50 Built into this choice is the premise that other unchallenged statutory elements cannot impact the court’s inquiry regarding the challenged policy here, which, in so many words, is the narrow framing itself. For the majority, even if the Second Amendment protects a right to bear arms outside the home, and regardless of how expansive that right could be, it would not affect the outcome of the case.51 This strict cabining of concealed-carry conduct from all other forms of potentially protected conduct affirmed the narrow framing of the question presented, but the court did not support its characterization at this point.
The court’s historical conclusions and subsequent disagreement with the dissent also rely heavily on the premise of narrow framing. The court walked through four periods of history and found a near-universal pattern of the existence and upholding of restrictions on concealed carry.52 It inferred from this evidence a categorical rule that the Second Amendment cannot protect that type of conduct.53 This inference is incomplete, however, if the broad framing is correct. For example, colonial-era decisions by the New Jersey and Massachusetts Bay legislatures outlawing concealed weapons54 could be understood in context alongside the other ways in which individuals may have been permitted to bear arms outside the home. If the dissent is right about the pedigree of broad framing, these laws can be read as the normal pattern for Second Amendment interaction with concealed carry where the right to bear arms in public is otherwise provided for.55 The majority’s narrow framing forecloses this view from the outset. If the legal question of concealed carrying is cabined from all other potential carrying rights, then the state of other carrying rights in the historical evidence is likewise irrelevant.56 Here, the majority’s historical conclusions imply a strong affirmation of the narrow framing but leave that premise undefended.
Properly characterizing the right claimed and the question before the court is a difficult task and is not at all unique to Second Amendment cases. A related challenge arises when approaching putative fundamental rights in the substantive due process context. One approach, advocated by Justice Scalia in his Michael H. v. Gerald D.57 opinion, is to begin with the most specific description of the asserted right possible, and look to history to see whether such a right has been protected.58 If no on-point history exists, a court should increase the level of generality and look again.59 The trouble with this approach, as argued by Professors Laurence Tribe and Michael Dorf, is that it is difficult to find value-neutral ways to navigate which characteristics of the claimed right remain at the next level of generality, and which are jettisoned.60 The conflict in Peruta is a more acute example of this kind of difficulty because the two sides disagreed from the outset about what — if any — contextual facts were legally relevant to the plaintiffs’ challenge. It is no accident that the dissent cites Obergefell, Griswold, and Lawrence to bolster its broad view of the right at issue.61 Rather than settle the matter, however, these analogies illustrate the difficulty of issue framing because the proper characterization of the asserted liberty interest was hotly contested in those contexts as well.62 Whether to include the existence of other restrictions within the analysis of Second Amendment challenges is a category of question that is hard to answer, and one that is not unique to gun rights.
Although it appears in other areas of the law, the question of how to characterize the issue at hand is especially likely to be a recurring difficulty in Second Amendment challenges. At times suggested to be the “Triumph of Originalism,”63 Heller looked to “both text and history” of the Second Amendment to determine the scope of the right to bear arms.64 Lower courts are required to follow this model and have done so with varying results.65 As Peruta bears out, a court’s characterization of the issue it must decide influences how it will evaluate the historical record. Thus, given the priority placed on historical analysis in Second Amendment cases, it is likely that this question will loom large in future decisions.
The circuits are still split over the scope of the Second Amendment, that key question left open by Heller.66 While it is possible for courts to differ in their interpretation of history and in their reading of Heller itself, Peruta is a detailed illustration that fundamental disagreements can stem from divergent characterizations of the questions that courts need to answer. Articulating reasons for how to frame issues presented is a difficult task, but one that courts determining the scope of the right to bear arms will not easily be able to avoid: when it comes to the scope of the Second Amendment, wherever Heller leads, the difficulty of issue framing is likely to follow.
* The author worked for Bancroft PLLC during the time a petition for full court rehearing was filed after the en banc decision, but the author did not participate in drafting that petition.