Caetano v. Massachusetts, 136 S. Ct. 1027 (2016)
Jaime Caetano was charged with owning an illegal weapon after displaying a stun gun during a dangerous encounter with her abusive ex-boyfriend in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) upheld the state prohibition on stun gun possession, stating stun guns weren’t protected by the Second Amendment because they were:
- “Not in common use at the time” of the amendment’s enactment;
- Dangerous and unusual as a “modern invention”; and
- Couldn’t be easily adapted for military use.
This Second Amendment Supreme Court case is often left off most lists because it didn’t impact any gray areas. When SCOTUS took the case, the facts were so clear they were able to issue a per curiam decision (issued by the court rather than a specific justice) without even having to hear oral arguments. To put it in perspective, from 1946 to 2012, SCOTUS issued a per curiam decision in only 7% of cases.
The Court made it clear the SJC’s reasoning for upholding the Massachusetts law violated the Second Amendment, based on both the decisions in Heller and McDonald. They repeated that the Second Amendment protects weapons for self-defense purposes and not just for military reasons, and it applies to weapons “that were not in existence at the time of the founding.” SCOTUS also clarified that simply being a “modern invention” did not make it dangerous and unusual.
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas in a concurring opinion, also scolded Massachusetts for failing to protect its citizens from others who are dangerous, reminding us that the Second Amendment protects our right to defend our lives when the states “are unable or unwilling” to do so:
“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.”
Second Amendment Supreme Court Case Silence
In the years since McDonald, there were over 75 federal court opinions upholding state restrictions on the Second Amendment that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review.
For example, in April 2021, the Supreme Court refused to hear challenges to a lifetime ban on firearm possession for those convicted of a non-violent misdemeanor. And before that, in June 2017, the Court declined to review a case involving San Diego County’s strict concealed carry permit requirements. But not all the justices agreed with this silence. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, commented:
For those of us who work in marbled halls, guarded constantly by a vigilant and dedicated police force, the guarantees of the Second Amendment might seem antiquated and superfluous. But the Framers made a clear choice: They reserved to all Americans the right to bear arms for self-defense. I do not think we should stand by idly while a State denies its citizens that right, particularly when their very lives may depend on it.
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