U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court cites Second Amendment in stun-gun decision, says state court misapplied Heller

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Massachusetts’ top court contradicted Second Amendment precedent in the reasoning it used to uphold a ban on stun guns, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday in a per curiam opinion.

The court granted cert and vacated the judgment without argument. The court ruled in the case of Jaime Caetano, who had acquired a stun gun to protect herself from an abusive former boyfriend, according to a concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito Jr.

The Massachusetts court had cited three reasons for its decision upholding the ban, and all of them conflicted with District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court said in its per curiam decision (PDF). The 2008 Heller decision held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a gun.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had ruled stun guns weren’t protected because they weren’t in common use at the time the Second Amendment was enacted, they fit within an exception for “unusual” weapons due to their “thoroughly modern” nature, and they are not readily adaptable to use in the military.

But Heller extends to weapons not in existence at the time of the Second Amendment, and to weapons that aren’t useful in warfare, the Supreme Court said.

In his concurring opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Alito said the reasoning of the Massachusetts court “poses a grave threat to the fundamental right of self-defense.”

Alito said Caetano had armed herself with the stun gun after an altercation with the former boyfriend put her in the hospital, and after multiple restraining orders against the man “proved futile.” When the ex-boyfriend confronted Caetano outside work and started screaming, Caetano told the man she had a stun gun and was prepared to use it. Her threat worked, scaring the man away.

The stun gun was discovered by police when a shoplifting suspect said Caetano was a potential accomplice. When Caetano agreed to a search of her purse, police found no evidence of shoplifting but discovered the stun gun. She was charged with violating the ban on electrical weapons and convicted despite her attempt to dismiss the charge on Second Amendment grounds.

Alito said Caetano had been prosecuted for arming herself with a weapon that may have saved her life. “The Supreme Judicial Court then affirmed her conviction on the flimsiest of grounds,” Alito wrote. “This court’s grudging per curiam now sends the case back to that same court. And the consequences for Caetano may prove more tragic still, as her conviction likely bars her from ever bearing arms for self-defense.

“If the fundamental right of self-defense does not protect Caetano, then the safety of all Americans is left to the mercy of state authorities who may be more concerned about disarming the people than about keeping them safe.”

The case is Caetano v. Massachusetts.

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