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Antonin Scalia on a duck hunt with Nebraska Republican Representative Jeff Fortenberry. [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

Law

What We Know About the Gun Rights Records of Trump’s Supreme Court Picks

Several favor ending firearms restrictions for the mentally ill, abusers, and on college campuses, but a few of the president elect's other selections have more ambiguous Second Amendment views.

In his first interview as president-elect, Donald Trump said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat that has been vacant for nine months would be “very pro-Second Amendment.” The vow was nothing new. Immediately following the February death of Antonin Scalia, who emerged as a gun rights icon after he penned the 2008 Heller ruling that affirmed an individual’s right to firearm ownership, Trump pledged to fill Scalia’s spot with a definitively pro-gun replacement. The promise became a constant in his roller-coaster campaign.

Because the political newcomer and former Democrat was at pains to appease suspicious conservatives and prove his seriousness, Trump also took the unusual step of identifying the specific people he would consider for the bench during his presidency. His list, released in May, grew to 21 names by September. In the accompanying press release, Trump gave shout outs to the right-wing wonks at the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society for helping him compile his prospects.

Though he did not credit the assistance of the National Rifle Association, a review of the resumes of Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist indicates that the gun lobby with whom he has so closely aligned himself won’t take issue with his picks.

Below is what we know about some of Trump’s potential nominees when it comes to the issue of gun rights. Excluded from this rundown are seven of Trump’s picks — Joan Larsen, Edward Mansfield, Federico Moreno, Margaret Ryan, Amul Thapar, David Stras, and Robert Young Jr. — whose rulings on gun cases have been lower profile or less influential.


William H. Pryor Jr.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals judge

While he was the Alabama attorney general from 1997 to 2004, Pryor fiercely denounced lawsuits against gun manufacturers that had been filed by city governments and victims of violence. In remarks to members of the conservative Cato Institute, Pryor said such litigation was being carried out by “leftist bounty hunters” in what amounted to an “assault on fundamental civil rights.”

As Alabama’s AG, Pryor also injected himself into the case of a Texas man who had been charged with violating the federal ban on possessing firearms while under a domestic violence restraining order, calling the government’s interpretation of the law “a sweeping and arbitrary infringement on the Second Amendment.” In 2001, the NRA’s lobbying arm gave Pryor its Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, its top honor.

When Pryor was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2003, his positions led a prominent Democrat to question whether impartial he could be impartial on gun cases. During Pryor’s confirmation hearings, Ted Kennedy criticized him for “vigorously” opposing gun restrictions and using the attorney general’s office “to advance his own personal ideological agenda” in the Texas case.

Mike Lee

Utah Senator

During Lee’s first run for Congress in 2010, the NRA endorsed his candidacy and gave him a provisional A grade, its highest rating for a lawmaker with no legislative voting record. Once in office, Lee became popular with gun rights supporters for introducing an amendment that would have required future gun laws to win approval from two-thirds of the senate.

Lee has also opposed bans on high-capacity magazines and the United Nations’ Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty, designed to keep weapons out of the hands of rogue governments and militant groups, has drawn the ire of Second Amendment activists, who dubiously assert that it is part of a secret globalist agenda to take away their guns. In 2013, Lee said during an appearance on Fox News that universal background checks on gun purchases were akin to giving the government access to what Americans eat for breakfast or the books they check out of the library.

Charles Canady

Florida Supreme Court Justice

Canady was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2001. During his congressional tenure, he opposed Democrats’ efforts to strengthen gun regulations, voting against both the Brady bill mandating background checks for firearm purchases transacted through licensed dealers and the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Since his 2008 appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, Canady has continued to tilt to the right on gun issues. Last year, he dissented when his colleagues ruled that defendants in shooting cases seeking to invoke Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law had to prove in a pre-trial evidentiary hearing why they shouldn’t be prosecuted. In January, a state lawmaker pointed to Canady’s dissent while arguing in support of an NRA-backed bill that would have shifted that burden of proof to prosecutors. PolitiFact called Canady an NRA favorite.

Don Willett

Texas Supreme Court Justice

In his most recent successful run for Texas’s elected Supreme Court, Willett won an endorsement from Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a group more strident than the NRA. In a summer editorial in the Tyler Morning Telegraph that blasted an appeals court ruling that Americans don’t have the right to carry concealed guns, the newspaper said Willett would be an “excellent choice” to decide such questions on the Supreme Court.

Timothy Tymkovich

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge

Tymkovich waded into the Second Amendment debate in a case challenging the ban on carrying firearms onto U.S. Post Office properties. While his colleagues upheld the rule, Tymkovich wrote in his lone dissent that he would allow the post office to prohibit guns in its building but not in its parking lot, citing a part of Heller that said the Second Amendment protects people’s right to carry firearms in “case of confrontation.” Tymkovich dismissed the post office’s argument that banning guns was a matter of public safety, saying that the government “cannot possibly show that preventing (licensed gun owners) from storing their firearms in their cars is substantially related to preventing criminality.”

Diane Sykes

7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s longstanding ban on handgun possession in 2010, city leaders responded with an ordinance that required gun owners to undergo firing range training, and also banned all firing ranges within the city. Plaintiffs — including the Second Amendment Foundation and the Illinois State Rifle Association — accused city leaders of attempting to make an end-run around the Supreme Court. The case landed in Sykes’s courtroom, where she and her colleagues decided in a unanimous ruling that the plaintiffs could seek an injunction to block the ordinance from taking effect.

In the ruling, Sykes took issue with Chicago’s argument that prospective gun owners could still obtain range training outside the city. “It’s hard to imagine anyone suggesting that Chicago may prohibit the exercise of a free-speech or religious-liberty right within its borders on the rationale that those rights may be freely enjoyed in the suburbs,” Sykes wrote. “That sort of argument should be no less unimaginable in the Second Amendment context.”

Allison Eid

Colorado Supreme Court Justice

Eid won praise from gun rights supporters in 2012 with her authorship of a unanimous state Supreme Court opinion that opened the door to concealed firearms on Colorado’s public college and university campuses.

The case centered on a dispute involving University of Colorado students with concealed carry permits and the school’s Board of Regents, which was intent on enforcing a no-guns-on-campus policy. The court’s opinion stripped the state university system of its ability to prohibit licensed carrying, citing a 2003 state law that allows permitted gun owners to take firearms almost anywhere in the state. The National Rifle Association supported the students’ lawsuit and has fiercely advocated for campus carry legislation across the country.

Raymond Kethledge

6th Circuit Court of Appeals judge

Kethledge was one of five appellate judges who ruled that someone previously forced into a hospital to treat mental health problems should be able to seek to have their gun rights restored, as long as they are no longer considered a threat to themselves or others. The case could land before the Supreme Court as soon as next year, the conservative website Breitbart predicted.

Keith Blackwell

Georgia Supreme Court Justice

Blackwell signaled his view on the Second Amendment in 2013, reminding a group of Georgia high school students that the founding fathers were concerned about limiting the power of government. “I know some folks like to say, ‘Well, that’s when people had muskets, now we’re talking about modern militaries, and people can’t resist those with ordinary firearms,’” Blackwell was quoted as saying before citing the cases of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where “ordinary folks” caused an “awful lot of trouble to our men and women in uniform.”

But later that same year, Blackwell demonstrated that he might take a more nuanced approach, at least on the specific matter of restoring the gun rights of convicted felons. In the case in question, he agreed with his colleagues’ decision to reject a weapons carry license for a man who who served probation for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon nearly 20 years previously. But he also took the step of entering a concurring opinion emphasizing that the state constitution guaranteed at least a limited right to carry firearms in public places.

Thomas Lee

Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice

A look at some of Lee’s rulings in recent years shows that he has a more ambiguous take on gun issues than his brother and fellow Trump Supreme Court prospect, Senator Mike Lee. Last year, he joined a ruling that suggested gun owners who were negligent could be held liable if their firearm resulted in the death of another person. In the case, a woman who had been drinking at a party accidentally shot herself in the head with someone else’s gun. The court declared that gun owners had a duty to “exercise reasonable care in supplying their guns to intoxicated individuals.” But the court also ruled that that duty did not necessarily mean gun owners should be held accountable for unintentional deaths and injuries, saying that an intoxicated individual’s negligence is likely to exceed that of the gun owner providing them a firearm.

Thomas Hardiman

3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge

New Jersey’s strict regulations for issuing gun permits wound up before Hardiman and his colleagues in 2013. The rules require people who want a permit to carry guns in public to show a “justifiable need,” defined as “specific threats or previous attacks demonstrating a special danger to applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by other means.” While the appeals court upheld the law, Hardiman argued in a dissent that New Jersey’s “may issue” requirements violate the Second Amendment because they curtail people’s right to self defense.

Neil Gorsuch

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge

Before his appointment to the federal bench in 2006, Gorsuch wrote an opinion piece arguing that liberals  should “kick their addiction to constitutional litigation” and try to “win elections rather than lawsuits.” Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group, noted in response that Gorsuch was not equally critical when conservative groups used litigation aimed at invalidating gun-control policies.

Steven Colloton

8th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge

During his 2003 congressional confirmation hearing, Colloton earned praise for helping carry out Project Safe Neighborhoods as a federal prosecutor. The much-lauded federal anti-gun violence initiative, launched in 2001, funded the hiring of prosecutors and the distribution of gun-lock safety kits. A senator also praised Colloton for training prosecutors and law enforcement in enforcing the prohibition on firearm possession among domestic abusers.

Raymond Gruender

8th Circuit Court of Appeals judge

Gruender has a personal connection to gun violence. While he was a law student, his father reportedly shot him and his sister before killing himself. The shooting prompted Gruender to become involved with a nonprofit organization that helps domestic abuse victims.

Speaking in support of Gruender’s 2004 confirmation to the federal bench, Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri lauded Gruender’s “campaign of aggressive prosecution” of gun violations while he was a federal prosecutor in a jurisdiction that included the city of St. Louis.