In state elections, the most important vote this November will be in Louisiana. A referendum there would significantly strengthen protection of the right to keep and bear arms in the state, and would set a very significant national precedent.
Before the Civil War, the Louisiana Constitution did not mention a right to arms. The Louisiana Supreme Courts, however, viewed the federal Second Amendment as directly applicable to state government. So in State v. Chandler (1850), the court held that the Second Amendment protected a general right to carry arms, but that a legislature could ban concealed carry.
A new state constitution, adopted in 1879, provided: “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 abridged. This shall not prevent the passage of laws to punish those who carry weapons concealed.” La. Const., art. 3. The first sentence is, of course, nearly verbatim from the Second Amendment.
A century later, firearms prohibitionists had convinced some courts to reinterpret the Second Amendment so as to make it practical nullity. Supposedly, the Second Amendment right was not an individual right, but instead a “state’s right” or “collective right”–which meant that individual gun ownership could be entirely outlawed. Because the Louisiana Constitution’s language so closely paralleled the Second Amendment, there was a danger that a Louisiana court could interpret the state constitutional language to protect nothing at all. Indeed, some courts in other states had already done so, regarding state law language that copied the Second Amendment.
So in 1974, the Louisiana constitutional right was strengthened, with new language: “The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, but this provision shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons.” La. Const., art. I, sect. 11. The new language made it indisputable that the state constitution’s right to arms was an individual right, belonging to each citizen.
Unfortunately, Louisiana’s Supreme Court, like some other courts of the late 1970s, was hostile to the right to arms. According to a 1977 Louisiana Supreme Court decision, “The right to keep and bear arms, like other rights guaranteed by our state constitution, is not absolute. We have recognized that such rights may be regulated in order to protect the public health, safety, morals or general welfare so long as that regulation is a reasonable one.” State v. Amos 343 So.2d 166, 168 (La. 1977).
It was unexceptional for the court to observe that the right to arms is no more “absolute” than any other right. But the court went much further, and essentially stripped the Louisiana arms right of any meaningful judicial protection. According to the Amos court, any form of gun control was constitutional, as long as it was “reasonable.”
In 2001, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that held: “The right to bear arms is established by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, § 11 of the Louisiana Constitution. The State of Louisiana is entitled to restrict that right for legitimate state purposes, such as public health and safety.” State v. Blanchard, 776 So.2d 1165 (La. 2001). The Blanchard court cited Louisiana state and federal cases from 1986 through 1999 for this proposition.
So Blanchard adopted an even weaker standard of right to arms protection than had Amos. Under Blanchard, any restriction is alright so long as the government has a “legitimate” purpose. Blanchard‘s legitimate purpose test copies one prong of the weakest standard of judicial review, the “rational basis” test, which was originally created for Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection cases. Under this test, every law is constitutional so long as the government has a “legitimate” purpose, and the law has a “rational” connection to that purpose.
Fortunately, gun control has not been politically popular in Louisiana in recent decades. So even though the state’s courts have essentially nullified the constitutional right to arms, Louisiana’s firearms statutes are not, in general, oppressive.
In the November 2012 referendum, Louisiana citizens will be given the opportunity to remedy the wrong decisions in Blanchard and Amos. Voters can adopt new constitutional language: “The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms is fundamental and shall not be infringed. Any restriction on this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
If adopted, the referendum would make two direct changes:
1. For the first time in Louisiana, concealed carry would be constitutionally protected. This makes sense, because in the 21st century (unlike in the 19th), concealed carry is most common way that Louisiana citizens exercise their right to carry handguns for lawful protection. Like most other states, Louisiana has a statutory system by which concealed carry permits are issued under fair and objective standards.
2. The judicially-imposed “legitimate purposes” test (the weakest test) of judicial review would be replaced by the strongest test: strict scrutiny. Under “strict scrutiny,” the burden of proof is reversed; the government bears the burden of proving that a gun control law is constitutional. To pass strict scrutiny, a law must be proven to serve a “compelling state interest” (not merely a “legitimate purpose”). Even if the law does advance a compelling state interest, the law is constitutional only if the government additionally proves that the law is “narrowly tailored” and is the “least restrictive means” to advance the compelling state interest.
Louisiana would be the first state to write the “strict scrutiny” standard into its constitution. This would become the model in other states for significantly strengthening protection of their own constitutional right to arms. So it is unsurprising that the proposed amendment is strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, the Louisiana Shooting Association, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is the most pro-right to arms Governor in Louisiana history, and a national leader on the issue.
Surprisingly, some people in Louisiana are opposing the Amendment on the grounds that it supposedly promotes anti-gun laws. For example, at this website, the author remains invincibly ignorant, even when the facts are patiently explained an attorney from the Louisiana Shooting Association. The website author wants to live in a world of absolute rights. Be that as it may, Louisiana today is not a state of absolute rights; it is a state where the right to arms essentially does not exist, as a matter of state constitutional law, as mis-interpreted by state courts. The amendment would remedy the misinterpretation, and make it drastically harder for future courts to uphold anti-gun laws.
A victory for the Louisiana referendum will profoundly strengthen the right to arms in Louisiana, and have significant positive effects nationally. A defeat would validate the actions of previously Louisiana judges in recent decades who deigned that the right to arms was unworthy of judicial protection.