In Commonwealth v. Caetano, the Massachusetts high court upheld Massachusetts’ total ban on stun gun possession. Yesterday’s Caetano v. Massachusetts decision from the Supreme Court reversed that Massachusetts decision and sent the case back to the Massachusetts court for further review (presumably to consider, for instance, whether the ban may still be justified by some sufficiently important government interest):

The Court has held that “the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding,” and that this “Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States.” In this case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a Massachusetts law prohibiting the possession of stun guns after examining “whether a stun gun is the type of weapon contemplated by Congress in 1789 as being protected by the Second Amendment.”

The court offered three explanations to support its holding that the Second Amendment does not extend to stun guns. First, the court explained that stun guns are not protected because they “were not in common use at the time of the Second Amendment’s enactment.” This is inconsistent with D.C. v. Heller‘s clear statement that the Second Amendment “extends … to … arms … that were not in existence at the time of the founding.”

The court next asked whether stun guns are “dangerous per se at common law and unusual,” in an attempt to apply one “important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms,” Heller; see ibid. (referring to “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons’”). In so doing, the court concluded that stun guns are “unusual” because they are “a thoroughly modern invention.” By equating “unusual” with “in common use at the time of the Second Amendment’s enactment,” the court’s second explanation is the same as the first; it is inconsistent with Heller for the same reason.

Finally, the court used “a contemporary lens” and found “nothing in the record to suggest that [stun guns] are readily adaptable to use in the military.” But Heller rejected the proposition “that only those weapons useful in warfare are protected.”

For these three reasons, the explanation the Massachusetts court offered for upholding the law contradicts this Court’s precedent. Consequently, the petition for a writ of certiorari and the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis are granted. The judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

A few thoughts (note that I co-filed an friend-of-the-court brief supporting review in this case):

1. This is a unanimous decision, unlike the court’s earlier Second Amendment cases — D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago — which were 5-4. I doubt that Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, who were in the dissent in McDonald, are reconciled to those cases; I suspect they would be willing to overrule them if they had five votes to do so. But in this case, they were willing to accept them as given.

2. It was also a decision handed down without oral argument and without full briefing on the merits. (The parties filed a petition for certiorari, a brief in opposition, and a reply brief, but those formally dealt just with the question whether the court should hear the case.) The court thus seemed to view this as a very easy case.

3. 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.

4. Caetano’s petition and our amicus brief argued that there was a split between the reasoning of this decision and the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in State v. DeCiccio (which held that the Second Amendment protects dirks and police batons), as well as between this decision and the Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision in State v. Yanna, which struck down the Michigan stun gun ban. But the majority mentioned neither case, and Justice Samuel Alito’s concurrence in the judgment mentioned only Yanna, and that just in passing. The justices thus didn’t seem interested in the presence of this sort of disagreement among lower courts, though the presence of such a disagreement is often seen as a very important factor in the Supreme Court’s deciding whether to grant review. The justices just seemed to think the reasoning of the decision was plainly wrong, and that was reason enough to reverse — something the justices very rarely do (at least setting aside cases where a state government lost below).

5. Justices Alito and Clarence Thomas would have gone further and would have held outright that the Massachusetts ban was unconstitutional; their opinion was fairly long, but here’s an excerpt from the end:

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.

I assume that Alito and Thomas are trying to (1) persuade lower courts, both the Massachusetts courts and other courts, that such bans are indeed unconstitutional and (2) to inform them that at least two justices are firmly against such stun gun bans — and the views of the six other justices are unknown, but might also ultimately align with Alito and Thomas, if the matter returns to the Court for full merits review.

6. Alito’s introductory paragraphs also struck me as quite rhetorically powerful — a fine example of the lawyer’s art:

After a “bad altercation” with an abusive boyfriend put her in the hospital, Jaime Caetano found herself homeless and “in fear for [her] life.” She obtained multiple restraining orders against her abuser, but they proved futile. So when a friend offered her a stun gun “for self-defense against [her] former boy friend,” Caetano accepted the weapon.

It is a good thing she did. One night after leaving work, Caetano found her ex-boyfriend “waiting for [her] outside.” He “started screaming” that she was “not gonna [expletive deleted] work at this place” any more because she “should be home with the kids” they had together. Caetano’s abuser towered over her by nearly a foot and outweighed her by close to 100 pounds. But she didn’t need physical strength to protect herself. She stood her ground, displayed the stun gun, and announced: “I’m not gonna take this anymore…. I don’t wanna have to [use the stun gun on] you, but if you don’t leave me alone, I’m gonna have to.” The gambit worked. The ex-boyfriend “got scared and he left [her] alone.”

It is settled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms that applies against both the Federal Government and the States. That right vindicates the “basic right” of “individual self-defense.” Caetano’s encounter with her violent ex-boyfriend illustrates the connection between those fundamental rights: By arming herself, Caetano was able to protect against a physical threat that restraining orders had proved useless to prevent. And, commendably, she did so by using a weapon that posed little, if any, danger of permanently harming either herself or the father of her children.

Under Massachusetts law, however, Caetano’s mere possession of the stun gun that may have saved her life made her a criminal. When police later discovered the weapon, she was arrested, tried, and convicted. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the conviction, holding that a stun gun “is not the type of weapon that is eligible for Second Amendment protection” because it was “not in common use at the time of [the Second Amendment’s] enactment.”

This reasoning defies our decision in Heller, which rejected as “bordering on the frivolous” the argument “that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.” The decision below also does a grave disservice to vulnerable individuals like Caetano who must defend themselves because the State will not.

7. There’s a stun gun case being litigated now in D.C., and there are similar stun gun bans in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and Rhode Island, as well as (as of 2009, when I wrote my “Nonlethal Self-Defense, (Almost Entirely) Nonlethal Weapons, and the Rights to Keep and Bear Arms and Defend Life,” article) the Virgin Islands, the Annapolis/Baltimore area counties, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tacoma and several other cities. I expect there will be challenges to some of those laws as well. Connecticut, Illinois, Fargo, and Oklahoma City also ban carrying stun guns, though not possessing them at home; those laws might likewise be challenged. (Caetano herself was carrying a stun gun in public, but the Massachusetts ban nor the Massachusetts high court decision distinguished home possession of a stun gun from possession in public; and though the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stated that “The conduct at issue in this case falls outside the ‘core’ of the Second Amendment, insofar as the defendant was not using the stun gun to defend herself in her home,” the court categorically said that “the Second Amendment right articulated by Heller” does not “cover stun guns,” without distinguish home possession from public possession. The Caetano Supreme Court opinion thus doesn’t decide whether the Second Amendment applies to possessing stun guns — or any other weapons — in public places.)

Thanks again to my student Ryan Azad, who worked on our amicus brief via the Scott & Cyan Banister Amicus Brief Clinic; to Michael Rosman and Michelle Scott of the Center for Individual Rights and Lisa Steele of Steele & Associates, who were also on the brief (which was filed on behalf of Arming Women Against Rape & Endangerment).