The biggest hurdle to comprehensive restrictions on private gun ownership is the Second Amendment. It has been interpreted to protect an individual right to self defense, and local bans on handguns have been struck down under that interpretation. Other gun limitations have survived (so far), but at a minimum, the Second Amendment preserves a base level of individual armament.
But what would happen if both the Second Amendment and its state constitution counterparts were repealed? Would the government, either federal or state, be able to fully ban private gun ownership? The answer could very well be no for another reason than the one I discussed in my last post.
The Bill of Rights identifies specific individual rights, such as the right to free exercise of religion and the right to a jury trial. These rights are called "enumerated rights" and are entitled to strong protection from government interference. The right to self defense is an enumerated right.
But the Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to protect other rights beyond those specifically spelled out by the other Amendments. This process is called "substantive due process," and through it the Court has identified and protected certain "fundamental rights" that are not enumerated but are no less entitled to to strong protection.
One of these fundamental rights is marriage. The Bill of Rights contains no Amendment identifying marriage as an individual right, but the Supreme Court has long recognized that its importance to the exercise of personal autonomy is critical to citizenship and should be protected from unnecessary interference. The most recent case on this topic was Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized a fundamental right to marry to which all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled. Government therefore needs a very good reason to stop people from getting married.
Obergefell is very expansive in its language, and does not provide any clear test to determine if a claimed right is in fact fundamental. That wasn't really necessary in Obergefell, because the Court held that the marriage right sought by the plaintiffs in that case wasn't something novel but a very old right that had been repeatedly recognized as fundamental for decades. Gay and lesbian couples simply sought equal access to it.
By contrast, in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg, the plaintiffs asked the Court to recognize a fundamental right to determine the terms of one's own death, or, more crudely put, a right to die (through assisted suicide). The Supreme Court unanimously rejected this claim under a two-part test designed to ascertain whether a claimed right can really be considered "fundamental" enough to be protected by the Constitution (despite not being mentioned by it).
The first question is to determine a "careful description" of the asserted liberty interest. For a right to be fundamental it cannot be vague or nebulous. The second question to answer is whether the carefully described liberty interest is "deeply rooted in the Nation's history and tradition."
The Court in Glucksberg rejected the idea that there is a general fundamental right to "self sovereignty" or personal autonomy and that there is a right to end one's own life on one's own terms included in that. "That many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy does not warrant the sweeping conclusion that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected." Thus it narrowly defined the liberty interest sought by the plaintiffs as a separate "right to commit suicide" and be assisted while doing so.
Then the Court asked whether a right to commit suicide was deeply rooted in the Nation's history and tradition. Unanimously, the justices answered no. In fact, suicide and assisted suicide had been uniformly prohibited all across the country with nearly no exceptions. Thus, the right sought in Glucksberg was not fundamental and therefore not entitled to special constitutional protection.
There is an argument that Glucksberg has been displaced by Obergefell as the prevailing case on substantive due process, but I'm not convinced for the reason I stated above. Obergefell dealt with a right long previously recognized by the Supreme Court as fundamental. It simply struck down a form of interference with that right. Glucksberg, on the other hand, dealt with a fairly novel asserted liberty interest that had not been allowed or recognized almost anywhere before.
But I digress. The point I'm getting to is that even if you apply the more conservative test and holding of Glucksberg to the question of arms, the likely result is that a right to self defense, or, in the alternative, a right to privately own guns, must be considered a "fundamental right" even if it is someday no longer an enumerated one.
The right to bear arms, or the right to defend oneself, is clearly defined. In fact, it's much easier to define this right if you do so independently from the muddled, confusing language of the Second Amendment itself. A basic right to be armed for self defense is simple and clear cut. Perhaps a right to own private nuclear weapons would not be considered fundamental, but a right to own handguns and rifles certainly would be (since those weapons have always coexisted with the United States).
And a right to private gun ownership is most certainly "deeply rooted" in the national tradition. Private gun ownership predated the Second Amendment and has been allowed - in most states with very few regulations irrespective of the Militia Clause - from the Founding until today. Guns are as American as apple pie (tragically, perhaps).
Under the Glucksberg test, it is difficult to see how a right to bear arms would not be considered fundamental, and therefore retain its protected status despite a repeal of the Second Amendment and all other state constitutional analogs. Granted, a federal amendment explicitly prohibiting gun ownership (similar to the now-repealed Eighteenth Amendment's prohibition of alcohol distribution) would likely cancel out a substantive due process argument.
But if the Constitution were to go silent on the matter, it would be difficult to see how states or the federal government could use the repeal of the Second Amendment to enact total bans on ownership as long as substantive due process remained a viable line of constitutional attack. The Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments would become the new sources of American gun rights.