Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the big laugh line of the hour at Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearings in McDonald v. Chicago. That case’s outcome will decide whether the Second Amendment rights vindicated in 2008’s D.C. v. Heller apply to states and localities. Scalia amused the crowd by asking a question that has perplexed some legal scholars and gun activists both for and against McDonald lawyer Alan Gura’s general goal of applying Second Amendment protections to all levels of American government.
To get the joke, such as it was, you first need the background about what was at stake. The Bill of Rights was originally interpreted to bind only the federal government. The framers of the 14th Amendment intended to change that, and bind the states as well in respecting Americans’ rights. This was in 1868, when recently freed slaves had their rights to work, own property, and bear arms widely abused and unprotected by state and local governments.
The history of the 14th Amendment’s passage indicates that a certain part of the amendment was meant to bear the interpretive burden of applying