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Corps' Regulation Violates Core Right of Self-Defense

Friday, October 17, 2014

A federal regulation that banned the use of firearms by law-abiding citizens for self-defense purposes on property administered by, or subject to, the control of the Army Corps of Engineers violates the Second Amendment and is unconstitutional, according to a ruling this week by Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho.  This decision, granting the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and granting a permanent injunction, follows an earlier ruling in January issuing a preliminary injunction.

With very limited exceptions, which do not include self-defense, the regulation prohibits possession of "loaded firearms, ammunition, loaded projectile firing devices, bows and arrows, crossbows, or other weapons" in the recreation areas surrounding 700 dams built by the Corps in the United States.  Two residents who used Corps-managed areas in Idaho for camping and other recreational purposes sued, claiming that the regulation violated their Second Amendment rights by prohibiting them from possessing a functional firearm in a tent (a temporary home), and from carrying a firearm on the sites.

The Corps had raised several arguments in support of its regulation, such as:  its recreation sites are public venues where large numbers of people congregate (over 300 million visitors annually), making it "imperative" that firearms be tightly regulated. In addition, these sites are "sensitive places," being government property containing "critical infrastructure" that require firearm bans in light of homeland security threats.  The Corps also claimed that it was entitled to be judged against a less restrictive standard of review because in imposing the ban it was acting as an owner managing its own property rather than as a governmental entity.

None of these claims was sufficient to overcome the fact that this regulation entirely "destroys" the core Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens to carry operable firearms for the lawful purpose of self-defense.  The court, referring to Peruta v. County of San Diego, 742 F.3d 1144 (9th Cir. 2014), noted that the right of self-defense extends outside the home, and the Second Amendment requires some form of carrying for self-defense outside the home.  At most, this regulation would allow a person to carry an unloaded firearm without carrying its ammunition, which essentially made the firearm useless for self-defense.  Because the regulation effectively extinguished Second Amendment self-defense rights, the court declared the law unconstitutional "under any light," regardless of the level of constitutional review or scrutiny used.  While government buildings and facilities could warrant protection as "sensitive" places, the court pointed out what was actually at issue was "outdoor parks."

The message again is that the government cannot seek to accomplish its objectives -- including a need to safeguard property or protect the general public -- by completely ignoring the Second Amendment right of self-defense.  Citing Peruta, the court noted: "We are well aware that, in the judgment of many governments, the safest sort of firearm-carrying regime is one which restricts the privilege to law enforcement with only narrow exceptions.  Nonetheless, the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."

Although Chief Judge Winmill granted a permanent injunction enjoining the enforcement of the regulation, the scope of the injunction is limited to Idaho because the plaintiffs' allegations are limited to Corps' property in Idaho.  The case is Morris v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, No. 3:13-CV-00336-BLW (D. Idaho Oct. 13, 2014).

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