A Continuing Trend: Using the First to Interpret the Second

John McStravick via flickr

John McStravick via flickr Creative Commons

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently used an analogy to First Amendment free-speech law in upholding a Second Amendment challenge and striking down a Maryland law banning semi-automatic rifles and larger-capacity detachable magazines.

In Kolbe v. Hogan, a divided 4th Circuit panel noted that the Maryland law imposed a near complete ban on these semi-automatic rifles and larger magazines. The appeals court analogized to the First Amendment principle that bans on entire mediums of speech are constitutionally suspect.

The U.S. Supreme Court identified this principle in City of Ladue v. Gilleo (1994), a case involving a ban on yard signs. “Our prior decisions have voiced particular concern with laws that foreclose an entire medium of expression,” the Court explained in the yard-sign case.

The 4th Circuit majority adopted this rationale in interpreting the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms,” writing that Maryland’s law banning semi-automatic rifles was “akin” to a law that bans an entire medium of speech.

Courts have examined and developed, over nearly a 100-year period, a complex and intricate body of First Amendment law. However, Second Amendment law is in its nascent phase. The U.S. Supreme Court did not rule that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” was an individual right until 2008 and it didn’t rule that this principle applied to state and local governments until 2010.

Sometimes, though, courts have used this First-Second connection to reject gun claims. For example, courts have reasoned that just as the First Amendment doesn’t protect all forms of speech, the Second Amendment doesn’t give one an unqualified right to possess any kind of weapon.

More on this: Turning to the First to understand the Second

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute First Amendment Center. He is the author of Let The Students Speak!: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011) and Teen Legal Rights.

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