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University of Utah debate tackles long-disputed questions of Second Amendment rights

Is the right to own and bear firearms only limited to the home?

SHARE University of Utah debate tackles long-disputed questions of Second Amendment rights

Is the Second Amendment right to own and bear firearms only limited to the home?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Is the Second Amendment right to own and bear firearms only limited to the home?

That was the question posed at the 36th Annual Jefferson B. Fordham Debate recently at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.

“This is a very difficult issue. I think we can all agree that there are no easy answers,” said debate moderator and U. law professor RonNell Andersen Jones.

She said a committee chooses the debate’s topic each year from issues that impact people’s lives.

“We always try to choose a topic that is interesting legally and interesting to the broader population,” she said. “Gun rights hits the sweet spot on both of those things.”

Across the nation, and especially in a state like Utah, she said there’s a deep cultural divide about gun rights.

“This issue is not just legal. It’s cultural and personal and individual, and so people are very vested in it,” she said.

At the debate, Duke University law professor Darrell Miller — who argued that Second Amendment rights should be limited to someone’s home or property — and University of Wyoming College of Law professor George Mocsary — who argued the right to bear arms goes beyond where someone lives — sparred about the long-contested issue.

Miller said the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller guaranteed law-abiding citizens the right to have an operable handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense.

He said the case was “monumental,” and one that vindicated the beliefs of many people about what the Second Amendment meant to them.

“Now, if the last 10 years has shown us anything, it’s that gun rights are far from unprotected in the political sphere,” Miller said. “Twelve of the worst mass shootings in American history have occurred since Heller.”

Miller said extending the Second Amendment beyond Heller would be “unnecessary” and “unwise,” because there isn’t a single state in the U.S. that doesn’t allow some form of public carry.

He pointed to Brigham Young University, which has amassed billions of words and thousands of documents from the 1790s to figure out what the language of the U.S. Constitution meant to the people of the time.

“They concluded the term ‘bear arms’ in 1791 was overwhelmingly used in a collective military sense,” he said.

Even though there are already laws prohibiting murder, assault and making threats, it doesn’t stop people from committing those offenses, Mocsary said.

“It’s difficult to imagine that someone who, undeterred by the sanction for these crimes, would be deterred by a public possession ban with a tiny chance of detection,” he said.

Firearms have traditional and legitimate public uses, Mocsary argued, like preventing crime, providing self-defense and hunting.

“They have positive values associated with them,” he said.

He also contested arguments against concealed carry permit holders, who are “capable of accurately using their weapons both to ward off and fight off attackers” as effectively as police, adding that it wasn’t a knock on police.

“Concealed carry holders can respond to an immediate threat immediately minimizing harm,” he said.

But if that’s the case, Miller said, why are guns barred in the presence of a U.S. president?

In 2018, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence gave speeches during a National Rifle Association Convention where guns had been banned — an order made by the U.S. Secret Service.

Whether it’s a hall in which a U.S. president is giving a speech or at a courthouse protected by metal detectors and guards, Mocsary said it signifies the government is demonstrating that “the situation or the place is sensitive.”

He said screening for weapons and the presence of armed guards can “reduce the burden” inflicted by citizens to defend themselves and citizens can feel assured knowing the government will take responsibility in case there is a safety breach.

During the question and answer portion of the debate, the speakers were asked about AR-15 rifles and where the line is drawn between citizen ownership and military weaponry?

Moscary said the purpose of AR-15s, especially through the 18th century version of the Second Amendment, allows the population to be armed similarly to the way the federal government is armed through tanks, planes and nuclear weapons.

The questions turned to mass shootings, as the speakers were asked about the best mechanisms for preventing them.

Mocsary said it was an “extraordinarily difficult” question.

“Things that I think might help is our red flag laws,” he said. “As long as they account for due process protections properly.”

Miller and Mocsary agreed it’s a multifactorial problem. 

“One kind of solution is not the way to do it,” Miller said. 

Miller said only looking for one solution and not agreeing on what those solutions should be doesn’t help the situation at all.

Andersen Jones said the free event drew a crowd of approximately 400 people made up of students, faculty and staff, and community members.

“We heard here at tonight’s debate that there are loads of people that are really genuinely, intellectually curious about what space there is in between those extremes,” she said.