The argument presented in District of Columbia v. Heller showed just how far the gun rights crusade had come. Nearly all the questions focused on arcane matters of colonial history. Few dealt with preventing gun violence, social science findings or the effectiveness of today’s gun laws—the kinds of things judges might once have considered. On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment guarantees a right to own a weapon “in common use” to protect “hearth and home.” Scalia wrote the opinion, which he later called the “vindication” of his judicial philosophy.
After the decision was announced, Heller stood on the steps of the court for a triumphant press conference. Held aloft behind him was a poster bearing that quote from Patrick Henry, unearthed by the scholars who had proven so important for the successful drive: “Let every man be armed.”
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In January 2014, liberal activists jammed a conference room at the Open Society Foundations in New York City. They were there to hear former NRA president David Keene. “Of course, we really just invited David to coax him into giving us the secret of the NRA’s success,” joked the moderator.
Improbably, the gun movement’s triumph has become a template for progressives, many of whom are appalled by the substance of the victories. Keene was joined by Evan Wolfson, the organizer of Freedom to Marry, whose movement has begun to win startling victories for marriage equality in courts. Once, conservatives fumed about activist courts enforcing newly articulated rights—a woman’s right to reproductive choice, equal protection for all races. But just as they learned from the left’s legal victories in those fields, today progressives are trying to re-learn from their conservative counterparts.
One lesson: patience. The fight for gun rights took decades. Another lesson, perhaps obvious: There is no substitute for political organizing. A century ago the satirical character Mr. Dooley famously said in an Irish brogue, “No matter whether th’ Constitution follows th’ flag or not, the Supreme Coort follows th’ iliction returns.” Before social movements can win at the court they must win at the ballot box. The five justices in the Heller majority were all nominated by presidents who themselves were NRA members.
But even more important is this: Activists turned their fight over gun control into a constitutional crusade. Modern political consultants may tell clients that constitutional law and the role of the Supreme Court is too arcane for discussion at the proverbial “kitchen table.” Nonsense. Americans always have been engaged, and at times enraged, by constitutional doctrine. Deep notions of freedom and rights have retained totemic power. Today’s “Second Amendment supporters” recognize that claiming the constitutional high ground goes far toward winning an argument.
Liberal lawyers might once have rushed to court at the slightest provocation. Now, they are starting to realize that a long, full jurisprudential campaign is needed to achieve major goals. Since 2011, activists have waged a widespread public education campaign to persuade citizens that new state laws were illegitimate attempts to curb voting rights, all as a precursor to winning court victories. Now many democracy activists, mortified by recent Supreme Court rulings in campaign finance cases (all with Heller’s same 5-4 split), have begun to map out a path to overturn Citizens United and other recent cases. Years of scholarship, theorizing, amicus briefs, test cases and minority dissents await before a new majority can refashion recent constitutional doctrine.
Molding public opinion is the most important factor. Abraham Lincoln, debating slavery, said in 1858, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” The triumph of gun rights reminds us today: If you want to win in the court of law, first win in the court of public opinion.
Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. This article has been adapted from his book The Second Amendment: A Biography, published this week by Simon & Schuster. © 2014.
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