SCOTUS Trashes Massachusetts Court Ruling On Stun Guns

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Mar 25, 2016 3:35 PM
SCOTUS Trashes Massachusetts Court Ruling On Stun Guns

Well, here’s an interesting angle in the Second Amendment rights fight this week; the Supreme Court reversed a decision (Jaime Caetano v. Massachusetts) made by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that related to the state’s ban on stun guns. The Bay State prohibits civilian ownership of such self-defense items, except for those who are in law enforcement. The case was brought before the Court after Jaime Caetano was arrested and convicted for possessing the stun gun after police found it in her purse, while looking into a local shoplifting incident outside a supermarket. For now, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which upheld Caetano’s conviction. It’s now relegated back to the local courts to be litigated again (via NBC News):

The U.S Supreme Court Monday wiped out a Massachusetts court ruling that had upheld the conviction of a Massachusetts woman who carried a stun gun for protection from an abusive former boyfriend.

[…]

Jaime Caetano argued that the state's ban on allowing individuals to possess stun guns violated her Second Amendment right to carry a weapon for self defense.

She was arrested in Ashland, Massachusetts in 2011 after police officers, investigating a supermarket's complaint about possible shoplifting, found the weapon in her purse. She told them she needed it to fend off a former boyfriend who was abusive.

[…]

But in an unsigned opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday vacated that ruling. It said the Massachusetts court improperly found that Second Amendment protection applies only to weapons that were in common use at the time of the nation's founding.

Referring to its landmark 2008 ruling on handguns in the home, the justices said the Second Amendment applies "to all instruments that constitute bearable arms," even those not in existence at the time of the founding.

Caetano had argued that the Massachusetts Supreme Court's conception of the amendment, "as a sort of fossilized relic trapped in amber," was wrong. A stun gun, she said, is an instrument designed for self-defense, so that the state's ban on possession violated the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling that said the Second Amendment protects the right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense.

Over at The Washington Post, Eugene Volokh, who also filed an amicus brief in this case, noted a few things about the case, one of which was that the decision was unanimous– and that it was handed down without hearing oral arguments, pointing to the notion that the justices saw this as “a very easy case.”

The summary reversal also helps explain why the justices reversed only the Massachusetts high court’s conclusion that stun guns were definitionally excluded from Second Amendment protection: Whether the stun gun ban may still be justified is a more complicated question, which many justices may hesitate to resolve without oral argument and full briefing; and those justices might have thought that there’s no need to devote such resources to the case now, since the matter might go away if the Massachusetts high court on remand holds in Caetano’s favor.

Volokh added that Justices Alito and Thomas would have gone further and struck down the stun gun ban as unconstitutional:

The reasoning of the Massachusetts court poses a grave threat to the fundamental right of self-defense. The Supreme Judicial Court suggested that Caetano could have simply gotten a firearm to defend herself. But the right to bear other weapons is “no answer” to a ban on the possession of protected arms. Moreover, a weapon is an effective means of self-defense only if one is prepared to use it, and it is presumptuous to tell Caetano she should have been ready to shoot the father of her two young children if she wanted to protect herself. Courts should not be in the business of demanding that citizens use more force for self-defense than they are comfortable wielding.

Countless people may have reservations about using deadly force, whether for moral, religious, or emotional reasons — or simply out of fear of killing the wrong person. “Self-defense,” however, “is a basic right.” I am not prepared to say that a State may force an individual to choose between exercising that right and following her conscience, at least where both can be accommodated by a weapon already in widespread use across the Nation.

* * *

A State’s most basic responsibility is to keep its people safe. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was either unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to protect Jaime Caetano, so she was forced to protect herself. To make matters worse, the Commonwealth chose to deploy its prosecutorial resources to prosecute and convict her of a criminal offense for arming herself with a nonlethal weapon that may well have saved her life. The Supreme Judicial Court then affirmed her conviction on the flimsiest of grounds. This Court’s grudging per curiam now sends the case back to that same court. And the consequences for Caetano may prove more tragic still, as her conviction likely bars her from ever bearing arms for self-defense.

If the fundamental right of self-defense does not protect Caetano, then the safety of all Americans is left to the mercy of state authorities who may be more concerned about disarming the people than about keeping them safe

Either way, the case will be re-litigated, so best of luck with your new court proceedings, Ms. Caetano.

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