« By expected 6-3 vote, SCOTUS in Jones v. Hendrix limits reach of habeas corpus statute, § 2241, for federal prisoners | Main | Early (mostly critical) commentary on Jones v. Hendrix »

June 22, 2023

Bruen brouhahas: split Seventh Circuit panel remands for "Ph.D.-level historical inquiry" on felon in possession

I just saw that earlier this week the Seventh Circuit had an interesting new ruling adding to what I am now going to call the Bruen brouhahas surrounding federal criminal gun prohibitions. Here is how the majority opinion in Atkinson v. Garland, No. 22-1557 (7th Cir. June 20, 2023) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion in Atkinson starts:

Before us is a Second Amendment challenge to the federal felon-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The appeal reaches us in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022). That development is significant because Bruen announced a new framework for analyzing restrictions on the possession of firearms.  No longer, the Supreme Court made clear, can lower courts balance interests — of an individual’s right to possess a firearm and the state’s commitment to promoting personal or public safety — to resolve the constitutionality of the challenged restriction.  The new approach anchors itself exclusively in the Second Amendment’s text and the pertinent history of firearms regulation, with the government bearing the burden of “affirmatively prov[ing] that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition that delimits the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.” Id. at 2127.

The Supreme Court decided Bruen after the district court faithfully applied our precedent and rejected Patrick Atkinson’s Second Amendment challenge to § 922(g)(1).  The parties’ briefing on appeal only scratches the surface of the historical analysis now required by Bruen.  In these circumstances, we think the best course is to remand to allow the district court to undertake the Bruen analysis in the first instance.

Here is how Judge Woods' dissenting opinion starts:

The question before us in this case could not be more important: may individual rights under the Second Amendment be curtailed or denied only on the basis of a granular, case-by-case analysis, or does Congress have the power to enact categorical restrictions?  And if some categorical limits are possible and others are not, what sorting principle may or must we use to separate the permissible from the impermissible?

My colleagues have taken the position that we need further input from the district court before we can tackle the present case. With respect, I do not agree with them.  The issue before us is whether 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) is compatible with the Second Amendment.  That statute prohibits those convicted of a crime for which the punishment exceeds one year in prison (usually felonies) from possessing a firearm or ammunition.  This is a pure question of law, and our consideration is therefore de novo.  If we think that we would benefit from further exploration of the issue, in light of the intervening decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022), nothing prevents us from asking the parties to submit supplemental briefs. Exactly that process occurs when we are confronted with an unfamiliar question of foreign law — another setting in which we have the authority to conduct our own research.  See Fed. R. Civ. P. 44.1.  Just so here: we must decide whether, in light of the textual and historical materials to which Bruen directs us, section 922(g)(1) is constitutional.  Remanding this case to the district court will not reduce our responsibility to evaluate that question independently when the case inevitably returns to us.

My own assessment of the materials that now govern Second Amendment questions per Bruen convinces me that the  categorical prohibition created by section 922(g)(1) passes muster under the Constitution.  I would therefore affirm the district court now, without saddling it with a Ph.D.-level historical inquiry that necessarily will be inconclusive.

June 22, 2023 at 07:17 PM | Permalink


I wonder how Judge Woods would rule if a state decided to punish jaywalking by up to 18 months in prison? Or littering? Or a stop sign violation?

Posted by: Steve Mannear | Jun 25, 2023 10:56:07 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB