Roanoke faculty experts discuss U.S. Supreme court decisions

Dr. Harry Wilson is shown in his office.

Dr. Harry Wilson is shown in his office.

Dr. Todd Peppers has written about the U.S. Supreme Court. Dr. Harry Wilson is an expert on guns and gun control.

SALEM, VA- Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court center around the expertise of two Roanoke professors. Dr. Harry Wilson and Dr. Todd Peppers offer their perspectives on these landmark decisions.

Dr. Harry Wilson is professor of political science and director of Roanoke College's Center for Community Research. Wilson is the author of Guns, Gun Control and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

Both sides can take considerable solace in this ruling. For gun-rights supporters, they can now rely on a Supreme Court precedent when they claim that the Constitution guarantees an individual right to own and bear firearms. A ruling to the contrary would have been devastating to their cause. With this ruling they figuratively live to fight many other days. They can also be heartened by at least two other major points. First, in addition to striking down "gun bans," the Court also appeared to wipe out many "child access' laws which require that firearms be stored unloaded and/or with trigger locks or other safety devices. The Court's heavy reliance on the self-defense and family defense arguments coincides with the idea that guns must be readily accessible to be useful against intruders. Second, the opinion suggested in a footnote that the majority was using a test beyond simple "rational-basis." Assuming they most likely applied heightened scrutiny or, perhaps, even strict scrutiny, then other gun control laws that will be tested in courts are more likely to be held unconstitutional.

At the same time, supporters of gun control should not be too disconsolate. Justice Scalia's opinion states that many gun control laws already in place are in fact constitutional. These include restrictions on the type of person who may own firearms and the type of firearms they may own. It can be inferred that background checks are acceptable as are restrictions on machine guns, and, most likely, so-called assault weapons.

Of course, given that this is the first serious foray into the meaning of the Second Amendment, there is much to be determined about the nature and scope of the right. Scalia's opinion recognized that there will be other cases dealing with the right. The fact that an individual right exists, though , is now settled.

Dr. Todd Peppers is assistant professor of political science and a current member of the Virginia State Bar. For the last several years, his research interests have included the study of judicial institutions and the Death Penalty. He is the author of Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of Supreme Court Law Clerks (Stanford University Press, 2006), which examines the changing role of law clerks on the United States Supreme Court. He is now working on a case study of Douglas Christopher Thomas, the second-to-last juvenile executed in the state of Virginia.

This decision by the Supreme Court continues a trend in which a slim majority of the justices have found that such practices as executing juvenile offenders, the mental retarded, and those convicted of non-capital offenses violate our society's evolving standards of decency. It is also interesting to note that today's decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also authored the decision in Roper v. Simmons, namely, the 2005 Supreme Court case which held that the execution of individuals for crimes committed as juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. At least in Eighth Amendment cases, Justice Kennedy has become an important 'swing vote."

Combined with falling rates of capital convictions and executions across the nation, I would wonder whether a national consensus is starting to gain momentum, namely, that the death penalty is an inefficient policy tool and has no place in a truly civilized society.

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For additional information, call the Roanoke College Public Relations Office at (540) 375-2282.

Released: June 23, 2008
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