Last week, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., was attacked in Colorado Springs. Although many details about the perpetrator, who killed three people and wounded nine, are still unclear, Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers said that the attacker's motive could be inferred from the location he chose. Violence against clinics raises an important legal question: Does Planned Parenthood have a Second Amendment right to bear arms in self-defense?
The question might seem absurd. Planned Parenthood can't walk down the block with a Glock in its holster.
Yet Planned Parenthood is a corporation — a legal person — and corporations enjoy many of same the rights as natural persons. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court held that corporations have a First Amendment right to make independent political campaign expenditures from their treasuries. Last year, in a case involving the chain store Hobby Lobby, the Court held that corporations have religious liberty under a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The first Supreme Court decision recognizing corporate rights was in 1809. Long before Citizens United, courts held that corporations have a Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, a Fifth Amendment right against uncompensated takings of property, and Fourteenth Amendment rights of equal protection and due process. When the basic purpose of a constitutional right is served by extension to a corporate entity, corporations should ordinarily be entitled to assert them.
Many of the most important cases advancing constitutional rights were brought by corporations, both non-profit (the NAACP) and for-profit (the New York Times). Likewise, many significant abortion rights cases have been brought in the name of Planned Parenthood.
Just last week, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Constitution permits states to require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Challenging the law is Whole Women's Health, a limited liability corporation, that, like Planned Parenthood, provides health-care and abortion services.
Recognizing Planned Parenthood's right to bear arms serves the basic purposes of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that the core purpose of the Second Amendment is self-defense. Like an individual, Planned Parenthood needs to defend its property and to defend the people — doctors, nurses, staff, and patients — who go there. Security is essential for an organization subject to so many threats that the Department of Justice created a dedicated task force just to combat violence at clinics.
Corporate gun rights are not a new idea. After the War of 1812, states granted corporate charters to a variety of organizations whose purpose was to provide training in marksmanship and other Second Amendment skills.
During the civil-rights movement, a group of black Army veterans founded the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a community defense patrol in Louisiana. The Deacons were formally incorporated as a nonprofit corporation with the purpose of "defense of civil rights, property rights and personal rights." The Deacons believed that under Louisiana law of the time, the incorporation provided legal protection for their right to carry arms.
The Deacons' nonprofit exercised its Second Amendment rights by conducting nighttime patrols of black neighborhoods. The agents of the corporation carried .38 caliber revolvers and M-1 rifles with their standard 15 and 30-round magazines. Deacons chapters proliferated to protect community organizers. The Deacons even provided armed security for the largest civil-rights march in Mississippi history, the "Meredith March Against Fear" in June 1966.
As individuals, the employees of Planned Parenthood have the right to bear arms for self-defense. But Planned Parenthood, as a corporation with its own rights, exercises the Second Amendment by hiring private security guards. (In Colorado Springs, the guard had gone home for the day before the attack started.) The corporation is free to choose private security instead of requiring its staff of doctors, nurses, or secretaries to carry guns.
Like all constitutional rights, the Second Amendment rights of Planned Parenthood and other corporations may be regulated. That doesn't mean government can impose onerous, irrational requirements on corporations seeking to protect themselves — like Washington, D.C., did a few years ago when it was accused of regulating private security "to the brink of ineffectiveness" by year-long delays in approving the necessary permits and other heavy-handed measures. Fair, reasonable laws for licensing professional security guards, by contrast, do not violate the Second Amendment.
Whether or not corporations are "people," Planned Parenthood has a similar need for self-defense as natural people and should have similar rights under the Second Amendment.
David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, and author of the new Cato policy analysis "The Costs and Consequences of Gun Control." Adam Winkler teaches constitutional law at UCLA School of Law and is the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (W.W. Norton 2010).