US V. Torres – Do “Unlawful Aliens” Have The Right To Possess Firearms?

Does an illegal alien, unlawful alien, undocumented immigrant, or whatever your favorite term for those in this immigration class have the right to possess a firearm under the Second Amendment? Five circuit courts have said no and now the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in an unanimous decision agrees in a decision released yesterday. They have all found that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A) is constitutional.

Some quick background on Victor Manuel Torres. He was born in Mexico and was brought to the San Jose, California area when he was four years old in 1989. Neither of his parents had legal immigration status. Notwithstanding that, he was enrolled in the San Jose school system until he was expelled in 2000 for gang membership in the Sur Santos Pride gang. A couple of years later he was sent to live with relatives in Mexico to get his act together. In 2005, he made three attempts to illegally enter the United States. The first two times he was caught and allowed to voluntarily return to Mexico. His third attempt was successful and he returned to live in the San Jose area. He married a US citizen in 2012 but made no attempt to apply for legal status. So you have a person who is in the United States unlawfully, did not have a right to legal status due to his parents, and who made no effort to change his status after his marriage to a US citizen.

In 2014, Torres was arrested when attempting to sell a stolen bicycle by the Los Gatos Police Department. When he consented to allow officers to look in his backpack for identification, they found a loaded .22 revolver, bolt cutters, and two homemade suppressors. In addition to state criminal charges, Torres was indicted and convicted on one count of being an unlawful alien in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(5)(A). He moved to dismiss this charge on the basis that the Second Amendment protections applied to him and that § 922(g)(5)(A) violated the Second Amendment. The District Court disagreed and after trial sentenced him to 27 months in prison with three years probation. He then appealed to the 9th Circuit.

The 9th Circuit used a two-step inquiry to see if § 922(g)(5)(A) was unconstitutional both facially and as applied to Torres. The inquiry sought to determine whether the law burdened the Second Amendment and then. if so, the proper level of scrutiny. Noting that the 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, and 10th Circuits had dealt with this question they proceeded to examine those cases. The key issue was whether “the people” in the Second Amendment was meant to apply to those illegally in the United States.

The two cases that all six of the circuits used to determine “the people” were US v Verdugo-Urquidez (1990) and DC v Heller (2008). The first case said “the people” in the Bill of Rights were those in a class of persons who are a) part of a national community and b) who have developed a sufficient connection with this country to be considered part of it. Likewise, the Heller case emphasized the Second Amendment as “protecting the rights of citizens” and “belonging to all Americans”. It went on to use the terms “law-abiding” and “responsible” in reference a citizen’s right to use arms in defense of their home. The five other circuits had all agreed that § 922(g)(5)(A) was constitutional but disagreed on the reasoning.

The 4th, 5th, and 8th Circuits found that unlawful aliens (the preferred term of the 9th Circuit) were not members of the law-abiding community per Heller and thus not entitled to be “the people” under the Second Amendment. Conversely, the 7th and 10th agreed that Heller was not conclusive on who should be considered “the people” as that was only secondary to whether it was an individual or collective right. They thus relied upon Verdugo-Urquidez to determine that those in question were “the people” or assumed to be. However, under intermediate scrutiny their exclusion from Second Amendment rights was allowed because it did not severely burden that right.

The 9th Circuit decided that:

However, we agree with the Tenth Circuit’s approach,
because we believe the state of the law precludes us from
reaching a definite answer on whether unlawful aliens are
included in the scope of the Second Amendment right. The
Tenth Circuit correctly held that this question is “large and
complicated.” Id. at 1169. Therefore, on this record, we find
it imprudent to examine whether Torres (as an unlawful alien)
falls within the scope of the Second Amendment right. As
such, we assume (without deciding) that unlawful aliens, such
as Torres, fall within the scope of the Second Amendment
right
as articulated under
Heller and Vergudo-Urquidez and
proceed to the appropriate scrutiny we should give to
§ 922(g)(5).

The court then had to decide whether § 922(g)(5)(A) imposed a permissible restriction on Torres’ Second Amendment right and what was proper level of scrutiny. Torres argued for strict scrutiny but the court disagreed.

However, intermediate scrutiny is
appropriate “if a challenged law does not implicate a core
Second Amendment right, or does not place a substantial
burden on the Second Amendment right.”
Jackson, 746 F.3d
at 961. Although not dispositive of the question, we note that
there has been “near unanimity in the post-Heller case law
that, when considering regulations that fall within the scope
of the Second Amendment, intermediate scrutiny
is
appropriate.”
Silvester, 843 F.3d at 823.

Here I might say that the “near unanimity” is due more to resistance by the lower courts to Heller and McDonald than to true constitutional jurisprudence.  The court goes on to decide that the severity of the law’s burden on Torres’ right is tempered. That is due to the fact that the prohibition on an unlawful alien’s possession of a firearm does not continue once he or she has left the United States. Moreover, if an unlawful alien was to acquire lawful immigration status the prohibition in § 922(g)(5)(A) would be removed.

The court agreed with the government’s contention that § 922(g)(5)(A) had an important governmental objective and that it was a reasonable fit between the objective and the conduct regulated. The primary objective is crime control and public safety. Armed unlawful aliens are a threat to immigration officers, they purposefully seek to avoid detection by often adopting false identities or staying outside the formal system of identification, and have already shown a willingness to disobey the United States’ law on immigration.

They conclude:

The present state of the law leaves us unable to conclude
with certainty whether aliens unlawfully present in the United
States are part of “the people” to whom Second Amendment
protections extend. Nonetheless, assuming that unlawful
aliens do hold some degree of Second Amendment rights, those rights are not unlimited, and the restriction in
§ 922(g)(5) is a valid exercise of Congress’s authority.

They thus affirm the lower court’s ruling that § 922(g)(5)(A) is constitutional.

The opinion was written by Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith. He was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and US District Judge Sharon Gleason who was sitting by designation.

The full text of the opinion is here.


3 thoughts on “US V. Torres – Do “Unlawful Aliens” Have The Right To Possess Firearms?”

  1. Translation: We're not going to determine of an "unlawful alien" falls under the scope of "the People" for the purposes of the Second Amendment, but assuming they do they have some degree of Second Amendment rights. However, entirely overlooking their rights does not burden their rights, because they are an "unlawful alien".

    Put another way: "Unlawful aliens" have some Second Amendment rights. Except that they don't. Because "unlawful alien".

    Or am I reading that wrong?

    1. I think it might be better put: "Unlawful aliens may have some Second Amendment rights. However, law and order is an important governmental concern and they have shown they will break the law."

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