The Next Gun Debate? Armed Drones Could Be Protected By the Second Amendment

Legal scholars are considering whether armed drones could be protected under the Second Amendment.

Screenshot of a computer-generated prototype of a drone armed with a machine gun.

Screenshot of a computer-generated prototype of a drone armed with a machine gun.

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In April 2012, Rand Paul's nightmare seemingly came true nearly a year before he'd even gotten the chance to dream it. Four people were having a dinner party and playing cards when all of a sudden, a robotic plane showed up outside their window and interrupted their game with a barrage of bullets.

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For 13 hours on the Senate floor this March, Paul railed on the government's willingness to use armed drones on American civilians, even suggesting that the government could use an unmanned plane to kill an American eating dinner with his family. But he never mentioned the possibility that the person flying the drone could be a neighbor.

That idea sounds farfetched, but some legal scholars think that Second Amendment rights might extend to robotic arms, including drones outfitted with weapons.

Fortunately, the poor card players that went down in a hail of drone-borne gunfire last year was a family of prop dummies, and the bullets were computer generated. The video was designed to promote the release of Call of Duty Black Ops 2, where players can control an unmanned attack drone. But the nation collectively freaked out when Kyle Myers, known online for blowing stuff up with big guns, posted video of that "Prototype Quadrotor with Machine Gun" on YouTube. It has since been viewed more than 18 million times.

 

But soon, the technology to arm your own personal drone might become a reality.

Most commercially-available drones, for the time being, aren't strong enough to carry a firearm, and experts say the recoil from firing most types of guns would likely down a small drone. But as technology improves and guns with little- or no-recoil become more commonplace, armed drones could become an issue.

In Texas, for instance, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department floated the idea of arming drones with a no-recoil shotgun that shoots rubber bullets and tear gas dispensers. In other YouTube videos, hobbyists claim to have created homemade armed drones.

 
 

One video shows a remote controlled helicopter outfitted with a .45 caliber handgun. Another video shows a six-rotored helicopter that has been modified to shoot paintballs. The man who created that craft wore a bandana covering his face and voice modifying technology, because attaching weapons to aircraft is expressly forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In February, Jim Williams, the man in charge of regulating drones for the FAA, was unequivocal about the question.

"We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period," he said at an industry meeting. "Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft."

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But when someone inevitably ignores the FAA and arms a drone to use it to shoot targets or defend their farm or house, will they have a Second Amendment argument to fight the FAA?

Maybe.

It's a question that Peter W. Singer, director of Brookings' 21st Century Defense Initiative, wrote in 2010 was an "all too real question" surrounding the age of drones.

"Does the Second Amendment cover my right to bear (robotic) arms? It sounds like a joke, but where does the line stop, and why?" Singer wrote.

"A lot of people have been moseying around this issue, but if you can't arm your own Cessna, you probably can't arm your own drone," Singer tells U.S. News. "We're in the early days of this, so anyone saying this could never ever happen is a pretty good way to prove they don't know what they're talking about."

[READ: Air Force General Says Autonomous Killing Drones 'Years and Years Away']

The Second Amendment question was recently explored in-depth by Dan Terzian, a U.S. District Court clerk in Guam, who published "The Right to Bear (Robotic) Arms" in the Penn State Law Review earlier this year.

According to Terzian, the answer to that question comes down to the interpretation of the Supreme Court in a couple cases, most importantly District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 decision that overturned Washington's handgun ban.