Opinion: Second Amendment applies to states, but minors don't have constitutional right to possess guns
The Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the thorny case of State v. Sieyes, No. 82154-2.
17-year-old Christopher Sieyes was charged and convicted for unlawfully possessing a loaded .380 semiautomatic handgun – a violation of RCW 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii), which generally prohibits children under age 18 from possessing firearms. The questions in this case were whether the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to the states, and if so, whether the state law banning possession by minors unconstitutionally infringes on the right to bear arms protected under the U.S. and Washington Constitutions.
In 2007, in Heller v. D.C., the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, holding that the Second Amendment guarantees the individual right to bear arms, rather than a collective militia right, as argued by D.C. The Court left for another day the question of whether the Second Amendment applies to the states. That question will be addressed later this year, as there has been some disagreement between federal circuits, but the Washington Supreme Court beat SCOTUS to the punch.
The Washington Supreme Court, with Justice Richard Sanders writing the majority, held that the Second Amendment applies to the states. “[T]he Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms from state interference through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This right is necessary to an Anglo-American regime of ordered liberty and fundamental to the American scheme of justice.” Justice Sanders also noted that the Washington Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to bear arms, though the Court has not determined the reach of Article I, Sec. 24 since the Heller ruling.
Turning to the question of whether RCW 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii) is constitutional, the Court declined to apply the traditional levels of scrutiny to firearm regulation. The Court voiced agreement with Heller -- that strict scrutiny would invalidate most infringements on the Second Amendment, while a rational basis test would set too low a standard to protect the right to bear arms. “We follow Heller in declining to analyze RCW 9.41.040(2)(a)(iii) under any level of scrutiny. Instead we look to the Second Amendment's original meaning, the traditional understanding of the right, and the burden imposed on children by upholding the statute.” Justice Sanders acknowledged the Court's "occasional rhetoric" about the "reasonable regulation" of firearms, but argued the Court has never settled on a precise standard of review.
However, the Court found that Christopher Sieyes made inadequate arguments on whether the law was unconstitutional. “In sum appellant offers no convincing authority supporting his argument that Washington's limit on childhood firearm possession violates the United States or Washington Constitutions. Accordingly we keep our powder dry on this issue for another day.” The Supreme Court held that Sieyes failed to demonstrate that the statute was an unconstitutional violation of his right to possess a gun. The case was remanded for consideration of additional issues.
Gun rights advocates will see this as a partial missed opportunity. After the landmark ruling in Heller, the Washington Supreme Court asked the parties in Sieyes to address whether the Second Amendment applies to the states and the appropriate standard of scrutiny for evaluating firearm regulations. Justice Sanders has long railed against the Court’s reliance on “reasonable regulation” of gun rights, and no doubt wanted to go further in clarifying the court’s jurisprudence. Thus his criticisms of the appellant for inadequately briefing some of these constitutional issues. Even so, the Court firmly holds that the Washington Constitution protects the individual right to bear arms.
Justice Debra Stephens concurred in the result, but wrote that as Sieyes failed to analyze how the state statute violated the constitution the court could stop there and should not have conducted an "extended exploration of the unsettled question of federal incorporation of the Second Amendment." Meanwhile, Justice James Johnson dissented, writing that "the majority disregards our long-standing national tradition allowing younger citizens to bear arms," and he argued strict scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review for a challenge to a statute restricting one's constitutional rights.