It’s only one sentence composed of 27 words, three commas, and a period, but lawyers, scholars, and politicians have debated the scope of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment for most of its 200-year-plus history. It wasn’t until 2008 that the United States Supreme Court finally entertained the question of a private citizen’s right to bear arms for self-defense and other personal uses independent of the Second Amendment’s language referencing “a well regulated Militia.”
The Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling struck down a law that essentially banned all privately-owned handguns in the District of Columbia. The Court ruled that the Second Amendment protected the right of an individual to bear arms. Still, it appeared to leave the door open for states to impose reasonable limits on the ownership and possession of firearms.
Needless to say, the 2008 decision was not the last word from state and federal courts around the country regarding legislators’ ability to enact laws restricting the right to possess a firearm. A federal judge in Oklahoma recently weighed in on the question of the right to bear in a ruling that struck down a federal law that prohibited unlawful users of marijuana from possessing firearms, finding the law unconstitutionally vague.
Unlawful users of marijuana and gun possession
A man stopped by police in Lawton, Oklahoma for a traffic violation in 2022, was detained when the officer claimed to smell marijuana. The driver said he worked at a medical marijuana dispensary, but he was wearing an ankle monitor and claimed to be on probation in another state.
When another police officer arrived on the scene, they conducted a search of the motorist’s car, where a gun and a number of marijuana cigarettes, and other products containing THC were found. The motorist was charged under state law with possession of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia, but that was only the beginning of his problems.
About three months after his arrest on the state charges, federal prosecutors charged him with violating a federal law that makes it illegal for someone who is an unlawful user of a controlled substance – which includes marijuana – to possess a firearm. Marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance and illegal under federal law, along with heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. This remains true even though many states, including Oklahoma, have legalized marijuana’s use for medical purposes (and some allow recreational use).
The motorist challenged the charges in federal court on several grounds; nevertheless, the court ultimately addressed whether the federal law violated the Second Amendment. According to a decision filed earlier this month, it did and was thus unconstitutional.
Did the federal law violate the Second Amendment?
The federal law in question also prohibits convicted felons from possessing a firearm, and there have been many decisions from courts throughout the country upholding the constitutionality of that aspect. However, the federal judge in Oklahoma noted that prosecutors rarely charge anyone under the section focusing on gun possession by users of controlled substances (as was the case here).
Prosecutors argued that keeping firearms out of the hands of drug addicts or unlawful drug users gave legitimacy to the federal law, so it did not violate the Second Amendment. However, the court noted that the firearm, in this case, was not used to further a criminal purpose. The motorist had it in his vehicle for protection, and that would be a protected use under the 2008 Supreme Court ruling.
In a lengthy decision that presents more than 50 pages of historical basis for its findings, the court ruled that the reliance on marijuana use as the basis for making possession of a firearm an unlawful act did not justify infringing the motorist’s rights under the Second Amendment. Although the court attempted to distinguish the facts of this case from cases involving gun possession by convicted felons, the decision may also be a catalyst for that analysis.
It may only be a matter of time before courts use historical analysis to question whether infringing upon a person’s Second Amendment right to possess a firearm for self-defense solely based on that individual’s conviction for a non-violent felony is also unconstitutional.
Keeping up with changes in the law
This case does more than show the evolution of the Second Amendment. It also demonstrates how important it is for someone charged with a crime to seek representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney. Laws and judges’ interpretations of those laws changeover time, so it’s imperative to put your trust in a lawyer who stays up to date with the trends and developments of legal interpretation and application.