Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

April 7, 2011

Burdensome Enforcement, Equal Protection: Is a Woman’s Freedom as Valuable as a Gun?

by @ 7:02 PM. Filed under Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Reproductive Ethics, Theory, Women's Issues

Interesting tactic in the New York City gun-control fight:

A gun-rights-advocacy group sued Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Tuesday, claiming that the city fee for obtaining a home-handgun permit was so excessive that it impinged on the Second Amendment.

The group, the Second Amendment Foundation, based in Bellevue, Wash., is focusing on New York’s fees because, according to the group, the city is one of the few places in the country that requires people to obtain permits to keep guns in their homes.

The city’s fee is $340, plus a $94.25 charge for a fingerprint check. The fee in most other places in the state is $10, according to the foundation. Mr. Bloomberg has long been a staunch supporter of gun control and has made efforts to reduce the traffic in guns into the city through sting operations, lawsuits against gun dealers and other antigun measures.

The city’s fee for obtaining a home gun permit has long been in place.

The suit, filed in federal court, claims that the city’s fee is so exorbitant that it “impermissibly burdens the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” and the suit argues that because city residents are forced to pay more than others, the fee also violates the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

(Just to be clear: New York City, separate from New York State, requires a permit just to have a gun in one’s own home; the process of obtaining one is deliberately made as burdensome as possible, including high fees and an extensive application and testing process designed to make you fail, as a form of indirect gun control. A completely different and vastly more difficult process is required to obtain a concealed carry license, which is rare in NYC.)

What’s interesting to me about this is not the gun-control issue itself, but the legal approach in this suit: they are claiming that the fact that the state (or the city, acting under authority from the state) has erected restrictive procedures that make it significantly difficult to exercise a right that in fact exists under law should constitutionally invalidate those restrictive procedures. And presumably they’re going to argue that the rationalizations the state offers – that they must review applications for reasons of public safety, that this incurs administrative expenses that must be covered, that the city has the authority to act on its official perception of the public interest against the wishes of the people actually affected, etc. – are obviously disingenuous or at any rate insignificant in view of the basic right of people to exercise freedoms that otherwise exist under law.

This reflects is a seemingly simple principle – people have a right to exercise their rights – that actually has considerable legal repercussions. For the most part, the Supreme Court has not recognized that the government has a positive obligation to ensure that people can act on their legal negative rights (i.e., a right that merely specifies freedoms that other people may not ban), but has not usually gotten into the question whether regulatory procedures that constrain but do not entirely vacate a given legal right are for that reason illegal. It’s a difficult problem; obviously, some regulatory restrictions are necessary in many cases, and equally obviously, that regulatory authority can be used to create insuperable practical barriers in cases where the law does not allow outright bans. But, to my knowledge, the Supreme Court has not held that the mere existence of a barrier is the equivalent of an unconstitutional ban. In fact, the Court has often gone out of its way to give deference to government regulations even when their burden on citizens’ rights is grave: the standard test for Constitutionality of a law is that it must show a “rational basis” for its existence, which the Court interprets to mean literally any rationale – however stupid or obviously dishonest – that is not literally logically impossible; the Court also usually rejects “substantive due process” and “equity” arguments, which ask for the application of general principles of law or morality outside the strict “black letter law” of statutes and case precedents. Thus, laws and regulations are typically upheld as written, on the presumption that legislations have wide latitude to act as they choose, and the laws they write are therefore prima facie in keeping with the principles of representative democracy regardless of how burdensome, unfair, or duplicitous they may be.

There are few exceptions to the “rational basis” doctrine, all having to do with Constitutional-level civil rights. The Supreme Court has held that laws directly impinging “fundamental” Constitutional rights, or imposing ethnicity-based restrictions on freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, must meet the test of “strict scrutiny” – that is, they must not merely have a nominal “rational basis”, but must “advance a compelling state interest”, be “narrowly tailored” to that interest alone, and use the “least restrictive means” to achieve it. Arbitrary distinctions between groups also come in for strict scrutiny, under the 14th Amendment’s “privileges and immunities”/”due process”/”equal protection” clauses. In other civil rights cases, the Court has imposed a doctrine of “intermediate” or “heightened” scrutiny, under which the laws must demonstrate a weaker but still compelling rationale for their restrictions. (Almost all sex- and gender-related discrimination receives only heightened scrutiny, because, you know . . . teh uterus . . . .) In the case of abortion, the Supreme Court has struck down some, but not all, anti-choice laws and regulations that were clearly intended to impose, in its words, an “undue burden” on women’s exercise of their rights; however, others were permitted under heightened scrutiny if the anti-choice state could articulate even a moderately plausible-sounding (as opposed to barely “rational”) reason for the law, even when those laws were obviously intended only as burdens on women, and even when they arose as part and parcel of laws that were otherwise rejected for that reason. So, in general, the Court has not taken the step of saying “this law is obviously intended to void a legal right, and you can’t do that”; it merely subjects burdensome laws to various levels of analysis as to how well they disguise that intention.

What’s interesting about this gun-control case is that the legal theory it relies on (as reported in this short article – hard to tell if this is true) attempts to raise burdensome but otherwise normal administrative regulations to the level of Constitutional infringement – that is, it appears to claim that having to pay ordinary but high fees, and jump through ordinary but complicated procedural hoops, is as much an infringement on Constitutional rights as are poll taxes or racial segregation, or at least as gender-based restrictions on employment. “Unduly burdensome” regulations may be unconstitutional, it’s true, but in this case the regulations are not unusual, even if the fees are high: every jurisdiction (other than a couple of whacko states that have no gun permit laws at all) processes paperwork, assesses fees, and in general requires some kind of procedural rigmarole for getting a gun permit. New York City is an outlier, in that their licensing process is unusually difficult (they make you take a test that includes trick questions), lengthy (it commonly takes months), and expensive (as much as 40 times what other jurisdictions – even in New York State itself – charge). But that is only a matter of degree, which it seems can easily be explained given the City’s political determination that they want to make the process stringent. (The fees, I suspect, are an estimate of the fully-loaded cost of staff time and expenses to process the fingerprints, application, and background check, and are probably slightly, but not hugely, inflated. That’s a bullshit way to calculate fees for a job the government actually exists to perform in the first place, but that’s a different matter.) So the issue here is whether a normal and appropriate government function – processing applications and assessing fees – which nobody suggests is unconstitutional in its typical form, becomes unconstitutional when that function gets so out of hand that it essentially becomes a tool for prohibition of what is otherwise a legal right.

This has obvious implications for the constant barrage of dishonest and hostile regulatory encroachments on fundamental Constitutional rights that have become the favorite tactic of the anti-choice brigades. Unnecessary waiting times, intrusive and unnecessary medical procedures, explicit ideological harassment deliberately intended to discourage people from the decisions they have made, technical regulations intended only to delicense or bankrupt clinics – all these and much more have been commonplace tactics in the anti-woman crusade for years, and they are getting more brazen and more offensive almost literally day by day.

These attacks on abortion rights go much further than New York City’s procedural hurdles for a gun permit. In New York, if you pass the test and pay the fee, they will give you a license (for home possession, at least). The administrative procedures are clearly intended as a bottleneck, and the fee is unfair, but the procedure is straightforward and involves nothing that is not common in the administration of similar governmental functions across the country. Anti-choice regulations, in contrast, commonly apply only to abortion procedures, impose burdens that serve no reasonable purpose or are inflated absurdly beyond what is necessary for their ostensible purpose, or distort ordinary procedures in ways that are intended solely to make abortion unobtainable, unaffordable, or discouragingly unpleasant. Examples include requiring multiple trips on different days to a clinic that is often a vast distance from a woman’s home; applying hospital licensing standards to outpatient clinics for abortion only; requiring medically unnecessary ultrasounds at a cost of hundreds of dollars; requiring scripted and false speeches to deliberately upset patients before a procedure – all of them extraordinary burdens that have nothing to do with the ordinary process of licensing and regulating medical clinics, or ensuring informed consent (which, in every other medical discipline, is intended to help patients get what they want and need).

The gun-rights people do have a point about New York City’s regulations: although those regs are not that unusual on their face, the details of their implementation make the legal right of gun ownership essentially unexercisable by many citizens who lack the money, time, or persistence to overcome a burden that is not actually required by the legitimate government function it purports to arise from. But if that difficulty rises to the level of a Constitutional infringement in the case of gun permits, how can the GOP’s outright and unashamed assault on women’s rights to legal and vital healthcare not be seen in the same light?

This puts the right wing, of society and the Supreme Court, in a pickle. If they agree that burdensome and hostile regulations intended to discourage the exercise of a Constitutional right are impermissible even when those regulations are normal and proper other than in the degree of the burden they impose, then they would have to agree that far more invasive regulations serving no ordinary purpose and deliberately intended to actually void a Constitutional right entirely, and even in cases of life-threatening consequences, are that much more obviously impermissible. On the other hand, if they want to continue their assault on women with any degree of logical consistency, it would seem they would have to throw gun lovers under the bus along with them. It will be interesting to see this play out.

3 Responses to “Burdensome Enforcement, Equal Protection: Is a Woman’s Freedom as Valuable as a Gun?”

  1. Alice Robertson Says:

    I am rushed…but off the top ofmy head what do you think about the rights of the unborn child being murdered so the mom can exercise her own rights.? Why is that same child has different rights outside the womb? Why does the act of being born suddenlychange it,s status?

    Are the rights og gun owners in the same realm? Stronger than those the gun may kill?

    Gotta scoot….just thinking aloud….
    Alice RobertsonĀ“s last blog post ..AliceARobertson- @drpauldorio How refreshing! Of course- one of the hardest parts of teaching honesty is to admit our errors Gulp! http-postly-1UzKl

  2. Kevin T. Keith Says:

    Well, first, you can’t “murder” something that isn’t a moral person in the first place.

    But as for the difference between being inside and outside the uterus, a couple of kind of important facts come to bear:

    (1) after delivery, the issue of abortion isn’t even relevant, and
    (2) before delivery, the fetus is inside someone’s body, and that person has the right of self-determination over whether she’s willing to have an unwanted fetus inside her body.

    Note, too, that a very small proportion of abortions are conducted after the point of fetal viability, and virtually none at the point of normal delivery.

    As for the gun issue, my point is that the war on women’s right to abortion has focused to large degree in recent years on deliberately incrementing the most restrictive possible regulations for bogus reasons, to make abortions unobtainable even though they are nominally legal – and this is the strategy also taken by NYC on gun control – making the process of obtaining a permit so difficult that most people can’t get one even though it’s still technically legal. A right-wing group is now arguing that obstructive regulations are unconstitutional even though in the gun control case they are not really all that different from ordinary, reasonable regulations on the same subject – just stricter. But if that’s true in the gun control case, then it’s even more true in the case of obstructive regulations on abortion, which often serve no practical purpose at all and actually violate normal standards of healthcare or health regulations. So the right wing and the wingers on the Supreme Court now face a choice: agree that deliberately undermining people’s rights with bad-faith regulatory barriers is unconstitutional, or throw the gun nuts under the bus in order to placate the anti-choice nuts. And I really can’t guess which way they’ll jump.

  3. unborn child Says:

    hi Kevin. You say that you cannot “murder” a “moral person”. But is it just a question of being moral? What about the unborn having a soul, feelings etc? It just feels like that you dismissed the point swiftly without other considerations.

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