Constitutional Liquidation, Surety Laws, and the Right to Bear Arms
- Author(s): Robert Leider
- Posted: 3-2021
- Legal Studies #: LS 21-06
- Availability: Full text (most recent) on SSRN
In recent years, some scholars have claimed that early American law did not recognize a general right to bear arms in public. Although most early state court decisions recognized such a right, these scholars contend that these decisions were peculiar to the antebellum South, which had a uniquely permissive weapon carrying culture. Outside the South, they argue, many states heavily restricted the public carry of weapons through surety laws. These surety laws required that, on complaint of a plaintiff who had “reasonable cause to fear an injury, or breach of the peace,” a person would have to post a bond to keep the peace if he went armed “without reasonable cause to fear an assault or other injury.” These scholars argue that the surety laws (which they call the “Massachusetts Model”) were descendants of the common law crime of going armed to the terror of the people, which, they claim, also generally prohibited private citizens from going armed. Based on this historical practice, they argue that the Second Amendment was not understood to encompass a general right to publicly carry weapons.
This book chapter challenges that historical narrative, and more importantly, disputes the relevance of the Massachusetts Model for constitutional interpretation. First, this book chapter argues that the relevance of nineteenth-century laws and judicial decisions does not primarily come from their ability to elucidate the original public meaning of the right to bear arms in 1791. Instead, their relevance lies in the idea of “constitutional liquidation,” that postenactment practice can settle the meaning of legal text.
Next, this chapter argues that the right to bear arms did not liquidate in favor of the constitutionality of the Massachusetts Model. No evidence has emerged that the passage of the surety laws was the product of thoughtful constitutional interpretation. And no course of practice emerged. As applied to the carriage of weapons for lawful purposes, the surety laws went largely unenforced. Likewise, there is almost no known record of American courts enforcing the common law crime of going armed to the terror of the people against individuals carrying weapons for lawful purposes.
Finally, the lack of enforcement meant that the surety laws failed to settle the meaning of the right to bear arms. Quite the contrary, all Massachusetts Model jurisdictions (including Massachusetts) adopted statutory criminal law governing the carriage of weapons in public. None of these states adopted a general ban on public carry. Instead, most states restricted only the carrying of concealed weapons, while a few others (including Massachusetts) had more lenient laws. Ultimately, the “Massachusetts Model” did not serve as a model for restricting public carry anywhere, even in Massachusetts.