There must have been considerable rejoicing in criminal circles last year when voters approved the constitutional amendment declaring the right to bear arms “fundamental” in Louisiana and subjecting any restrictions to “strict scrutiny” by the courts.
Few had more reason to smile than convicted burglar Glen Draughter, who was looking at 10 years minimum, having been caught six months earlier driving around with a pistol on the back seat and an AK-47 in the trunk.
He got a big break when he came up before New Orleans Judge Darryl Derbigny, who acquitted him on grounds that the law that forbids felons to carry guns became unconstitutional under the amendment; DA Leon Cannizzaro appealed, and the state Supreme Court heard arguments Monday.
One of Cannizzaro’s crew suggested the amendment made no never mind in this case and urged the justices to apply the law as it stood when Draughter was picked up.
If they agreed with that proposition, they could conceivably resolve the case without plowing new constitutional ground, and it is not unknown for jurists to punt. They have a keen eye for a chance to seize on some peripheral issue and leave the crux for another day.
The substantive questions need to be addressed sooner or later, and so much is riding on them that it has to be now.
The amendment that has, so far, spared Draughter a long stretch requires the state to demonstrate gun laws are “narrowly tailored” to meet a “compelling” interest. Clearly the state has a compelling interest in disarming, say, homicidal maniacs, but the law under which Draughter was charged treats bomb manufacture and drug possession exactly the same.
The law, which forbids felons to carry guns for 10 years, worked fine until the amendment was adopted, but it clearly fails to meet any commonsense definition of “narrowly tailored.” Even in legal matters, that is sometimes a relevant consideration, and there must be a strong chance that the Supreme Court will agree that the felon-in-possession law is too broad to pass muster under the amendment.
That would leave the Legislature scrambling to pass statutes focused on keeping guns out of demonstrably dangerous hands.
No doubt defense attorneys, meanwhile, would claim the amendment applied retroactively and challenge countless convictions.
When Gov. Bobby Jindal and the NRA campaigned for the amendment last year, it was supposed to prevent the feds from taking our gun rights away. Vote yes, declared the NRA, and ensure that “gun laws focus on punishing criminals, not law-abiding citizens.”
It was a panicky response to an imaginary threat, but the amendment sure made a big difference. Now that armed felons are free to stalk the state, and chaos descends on the courts and the Legislature, law-abiding citizens may feel things did not quite work out as advertised.
The amendment was shepherded through the Legislature by state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, for whose loyal service Jindal is so grateful that he has done all he can to get him elected to Congress in Saturday’s election.
The amendment, being stupid and serving no rational purpose, remains highly popular, and no doubt it will help Riser’s cause, even though the scale of the threat it poses to public safety is now apparent.
Cannizzaro was alive to that threat from the beginning, predicting at news conferences and in newspaper articles precisely the mess in which we find ourselves.
The felon-in-possession law has been ruled unconstitutional by a few trial judges, and the task of defending it falls to the district attorneys. It was a humorous fate that put the first case in Cannizzaro’s bailiwick.
If the Supreme Court does rule in Draughter’s favor, other laws, particularly the one requiring concealed-carry permits, seem certain to come under attack. This might all make sense if expanding gun rights made sense in this, the most trigger-happy state in the union.
The amendment has not freed any law-abiding citizen from unreasonable restriction. But the felons sure are whooping it up.
James Gill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.