Here’s Why the Supreme Court Won’t Touch Guns

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court is like the mouth of a small child — a brilliant mouth, with old and experienced teeth — but all the same, one that doesn’t want to eat its vegetables. And in this scenario, vegetables are gun control. The nation may be in need of overarching and consistent gun laws, but based on recent signs from the court, America is unlikely to get them. Specifically, a Supreme Court ruling on the case of Abramski v. United States was made this year on June 16, but the ruling was given in such a way so as not to outline any substantial definitions to the U.S. body of law.

The case came down on the side of gun control, stating in a 5-4 ruling that “straw” acquisitions of firearms (guns bought for another person) will remain under federal ban. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan references a 40-year history of federal law regulating firearm sales, and says “that statute’s record-keeping provisions would serve little purpose if the records kept were of nominal rather than real buyers.”

It was a narrow ruling, one without mention of the Second Amendment – in other words, whatever greater uses the case could have been put to, the justices chose not to do so, making the last really major ruling on gun control the case of District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. Nine years ago and counting: Why doesn’t SCOTUS want to take on any major gun control cases? It’s had more than enough opportunity, passing on a case in May and a number of attempts from the National Rifle Association to involve the court once more.

Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, has some suggestions as to why SCOTUS is acting so “gun shy.” Unfortunately, what he mostly has is further proof that the Supreme Court is indeed avoiding gun rights cases, and a solid argument for why state legislatures that are struggling with dissident and controversial local laws are in need of federal rulings to clarify current precedence.

“Such disagreement in the lower court is usually the best predictor of whether the Supreme Court takes a case. The justices understand the nation’s need for uniformity, especially when it comes to individual rights,” writes Winkler. This is a point Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself made in a June remark, writing, “we tend to grant review only when other courts have divided on the answer to the issue we take up.”

However, Winkler goes on to say that “not only did the court refuse to hear Clement’s case and another brought by the nation’s leading gun rights group, but it also rejected the NRA’s position outright in the straw-purchaser case.” He suggests that Justice Anthony Kennedy isn’t likely to rule for looser gun control going forward. “Kennedy seems increasingly less likely to be a solid vote for expansive Second Amendment rights. Indeed, twice this term he voted for expansive readings of gun control law instead,” Winkler wrote for the UCLA newsroom.

But this still leaves the main question unanswered: Why is the court holding off? It may be that SCOTUS is waiting for the hostile atmosphere in Washington to settle, for elections to pass, and for Congress to take the lead on gun control legislation. But even if Congress takes initiative, Heller left too much open to interpretation for the court to not readdress the issue. While Heller made it clear that gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment, there’s no clarification on things like open carry laws.

Where do states’ rights and constitutional rights draw the lines? The line is still blurry and subjective. It’s possible the court doesn’t think the time is ripe to deal with such a controversial and hostile topic, and that the testing grounds of the states need more time to see what is and isn’t effective policy.

On the other hand, it’s possible the court hopes to make slow progress on gun control, rather than ground-breaking decisions the size of the recent Hobby Lobby ruling. While this is not what gun right advocates were hoping for and not as comprehensive and decisive as gun control advocates may have wanted, the Abramski case was still a step toward greater regulation and will alter national gun policy.

Going back to our original metaphor, perhaps the Supreme Court is just going to eat a single pea at a time, or perhaps it’s waiting until the vegetables are steamed, for better chewing prospects. Either way, it’s likely dinner won’t be over until those greens are eaten.

More from Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS