Duke Law's new Center for Firearms Law aims for 'rigorous and balanced' Second Amendment scholarship

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Duke Center for Firearms Law is searching for a scholarly alternative to the politically charged national debate surrounding gun rights and regulation.

Joseph Blocher, Lanty L. Smith ’67 professor of law, and Darrell Miller, the Melvin G. Shimm professor of law, created the Center to advance non-partisan scholarship about the Second Amendment. The two co-directors are joined by Jake Charles, Law School ’13, as the Center’s executive director.

Blocher said there is a lack of reliable scholarship on the Second Amendment and the constitutional questions it raises. These legal questions are especially important after the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld the right to bear arms for individuals' private purposes, including self-defense. 

“I think that there’s not enough attention paid in the scholarly community to this really important and complex and interesting and nuanced set of questions,” he said.

The Center for Firearms Law is the first of its kind, focused on building firearms law as a “distinct area of scholarship in law schools,” Charles said. 

Compared to the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Blocher said, the Second Amendment is seriously lacking in scholarship.

“We have as a goal to be an incubator for new scholars, for existing scholarship, that folks from the Duke Law community and the undergraduate students and other scholars and courts and the public can rely on to produce rigorous and balanced scholarship,” Charles said.

Charles is coming in with a fresher perspective on the day-to-day programming and direction of the Center, whereas Blocher has been engaged with Second Amendment legal questions for much of his academic career. 

“One primary focus of my career has been how to accommodate two sometimes conflicting American traditions—that of gun rights and that of gun regulation,” Blocher said.

After law school, Blocher worked under Walter Dellinger III, who led the District of Columbia’s arguments in D.C. v. Heller and is now the Douglas B. Maggs professor emeritus of law at Duke. Blocher assisted with the briefing in support of the constitutionality of D.C.’s gun regulation.

“We were on the losing side. The laws got struck down,” Blocher said. “But that really for me sparked what has been thus far a lifelong or career-long interest.”

Blocher and Charles agreed that the Center for Firearms Law will not focus on policy questions about gun regulation. Rather, it will be dedicated to providing balanced scholarship regarding what the Constitution and how courts have interpreted the Second Amendment. Duke, as one of the only law schools with a firearms-focused faculty, is well situated to be catalyzing this scholarship, Blocher said.

Scholarship about the constitutional underpinnings of the Second Amendment could prove to be useful to policymakers considering proposals, Charles said. Blocher also agreed that whereas the Center for Firearms Law may not be involved in active publicity efforts with popular media, scholarship produced would ideally inform broader public discussions about gun policy.

“My view is the policy work, the political work all have to go hand in hand with an understanding of what the constitution says,” Blocher said. “Or else courts will be striking down well-intentioned legislation.”

Firearms law scholarship may also help create a middle ground in the current gun debate that is dominated by polarizing political views and the scholarship put out by advocates on both sides of the issue. Blocher and Charles hope that Second Amendment scholarship may help policymakers reach compromises that are both effective and constitutionally sound. 

“People too often think that it’s a question of either rights or regulation—that if you support gun rights, then you can’t support any regulation and vice versa,” Blocher said. “And that’s just a false choice.”


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