Antonin Scalia’s reading of the Second Amendment was a touchstone of his conservatism in the Supreme Court, and his ardent respect for gun rights is now a requirement of right-wing politics nationwide. But firearms were an important part of his life long before he walked the halls of the court. Following the justice’s death on Saturday at a West Texas quail ranch, President Barack Obama commemorated Scalia in a press conference as “an avid hunter” — which only begins to capture the late jurist’s interest in and affinity for firearms. With his passing, American gun culture has lost not only an intellectual hero, but also one of its own.
Scalia’s hands-on familiarity with firearms was undoubtedly different from many of his ivory tower colleagues. As a student at Xavier High School in Manhattan from 1949 to 1953, he handled rifles as part of his training in the school’s Junior ROTC program. To get to ROTC practice in Queens, he took the subway, carrying his weapon with him on the train. Addressing the National Wild Turkey Federation’s annual convention in 2008, Scalia fondly recalled how the sight of a young man with a gun did not phase his fellow passengers.
“The attitude of people associating guns with nothing but crime, that is what has to be changed … I grew up at a time when people were not afraid of people with firearms. I used to travel on the subway from Queens to Manhattan with a rifle. Could you imagine doing that today in New York City?”
In addition to marksmanship, hunting was also an important part of the justice’s formative years. Though his Sicilian New York family was culturally removed from the tradition of hunting, Scalia gained an appreciation for the sport from his grandfather:
My last memories of him were — we had a bungalow, which he had built out on Long Island, back in the days when Long Island was really the country. I went in the woods hunting rabbits with him — there’s a photo of me holding a rabbit and his twelve-gauge shotgun. Then he got too old to go in the woods … my grandfather would sit on the back porch of this bungalow, holding his twelve-gauge shotgun, and would wait for the rabbits to come to him in the vegetable garden. Boom! He would shoot them there.
Scalia carried that reverence for firearms with him to the Court, where he turned heads for his hunting excursions with Dick Cheney. Mike Weisser, a longtime gun dealer who blogs about gun issues as “Mike the Gun Guy,” recalls meeting the justice at a law school dinner in 2006. “For the next hour,” writes Weisser, “he talked animatedly about different guns, different calibers, was particularly interested in my thoughts about the differences between a .338 Winchester Magnum and a .300 Weatherby.”
After Scalia penned the landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, his interpretation of the Second Amendment became one that would-be Justices had to respect, were they to survive their own confirmation hearings. When Elena Kagan was nominated to the court, she was asked by U.S. senators what she thought of the Second Amendment, and whether she had been hunting. Parrying their questions, she promised to go shooting with Scalia. After she was seated on the court in 2010, that’s just what she did. The two went on bird hunting trips “four or five times” before advancing to bigger game.
On Saturday, the National Rifle Association tweeted, “RIP Scalia. Thank you for your unwavering tenacity in defense of the U.S. Constitution.” In the confirmation battle to come, the gun lobby and its allies will be working to ensure that his replacement shares the departed justice’s assessment of the law. For everyday gun owners, the question is also when one of the most elite posts in the nation will again include someone who loves to fire away as much as they do.