Tempers flared and neurons fired Monday at the Yale Law School, where students and faculty discussed McDonald v. Chicago, a Supreme Court decision on gun rights with “huge historical significance,” as Law School Dean Robert Post LAW ’77 said.
The 5–4 decision, handed down in June, extended the right to bear arms, protected by the Second Amendment, to state and local laws. More than 80 students and faculty members crowded into the Law School faculty room Monday to listen to a discussion about the ruling with Post and law professors Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 and Jed Rubenfeld.
“Everyone born in America is a citizen, and to be a citizen means you have fundamental freedoms from the federal government and the states,” Amar said. “We are gun-loving people, we’re gladiatorial people.”
In the majority decision, Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75 argued that the Fourteenth Amendment prevented state governments from infringing on rights guaranteed in earlier amendments, including the Second. Much of Monday’s discussion focused on the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment, with the professors asserting that it shifted how the United States treats the Bill of Rights.
Although Rubenfeld and Amar, both Constitutional scholars, agreed that the case was decided correctly, they said they feared it might be for the wrong reasons. Both professors said the decision is well-founded in the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment, but noted that the justices seemed to argue for it on more modern political principals.
“The usual suspects were lined up in the usual way in the McDonald case,” Rubenfeld said, referring to split between conservative and liberal justices.
Amar put the Fourteenth Amendment in perspective, arguing that it reconstructed the perspective on the Bill of Rights from a revolutionary one fearful of big government to a modern view that is more skeptical of local bodies.
“The Fourteenth Amendment makes us all not just citizens, but equal citizens,” Amar said. “Enough about James Madison, enough about Thomas Jefferson. We are children of Lincoln.”
The conversation, though generally calm, grew heated just once when Saul Cornell, a visiting professor from Fordham University questioned Amar on the historical context he provided about the decision. Amar surprised audience members when he dismissed Cornell’s question, asking him if he is as well-read as Amar himself.
While some students complained afterward that Amar unnecessarily closed off debate with the remarks, Cornell said he was not offended.
“Good lively debate is why you come to these [events],” he said. “I have thick skin.”
Five law students interviewed said they found the talk enlightening.
Fabien Thayamballi LAW ’12, said he agreed with the speakers’ perspective, and added that the discussion made him want to read one of Amar’s books.