District of Columbia v. Heller, case in which the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2008, held (5–4) that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home. It was the first Supreme Court case to explore the meaning of the Second Amendment since United States v. Miller (1939).
District of Columbia v. Heller originated in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in 2003. In Parker v. District of Columbia, six residents of the federal District of Columbia asked the court to enjoin enforcement of three provisions of the district’s Firearms Control Regulation Act (1975) that generally banned the registration of handguns, prohibited the carrying of unlicensed handguns or any other “deadly or dangerous” weapon capable of being concealed, and required that lawfully stored firearms be disassembled or locked to prevent firing. The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss. In 2007 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, after determining that only one of the plaintiffs, Dick Heller, had standing to sue (because only he had suffered an actual injury, the denial of his application for a license to possess a handgun), struck down the first and third provisions and limited the enforcement of the second. The government filed for certiorari, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 18, 2008.
In a 5–4 ruling issued on June 26, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling. In so doing, it endorsed the so-called “individual-right” theory of the Second Amendment’s meaning and rejected a rival interpretation, the “collective-right” theory, according to which the amendment protects a collective right of states to maintain militias or an individual right to keep and bear arms in connection with service in a militia. Writing for the majority, Antonin Scalia argued that the operative clause of the amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” codifies an individual right derived from English common law and codified in the English Bill of Rights (1689). The majority held that the Second Amendment’s preamble, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is consistent with this interpretation when understood in light of the framers’ belief that the most effective way to destroy a citizens’ militia was to disarm the citizens. The majority also found that United States v. Miller supported an individual-right rather than a collective-right view, contrary to the dominant 20th-century interpretation of that decision. (In Miller, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a federal law requiring the registration of sawed-off shotguns did not violate the Second Amendment because such weapons did not have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”) Finally, the court held that, because the framers understood the right of self-defense to be “the central component” of the right to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment implicitly protects the right “to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
In his dissenting opinion, JusticeJohn Paul Stevens asserted that the court’s decision “fails to identify any new evidence supporting the view that the Amendment was intended to limit the power of Congress to regulate civilian uses of weapons.” He criticized the court for attempting to “denigrate” the importance of the preamble by ignoring its disambiguation of the operative clause, and he asserted that it had misinterpreted Miller and neglected the subsequent decisions of “hundreds of judges,” all of whom had taken a collective-right view of the Second Amendment’s meaning. Stephen Breyer wrote a separate dissent.
OCTOBER TERM, 2007
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA V. HELLER
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA et al. v. HELLER
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit
No. 07–290. Argued March 18, 2008—Decided June 26, 2008
District of Columbia law bans handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns; provides separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorizes the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and requires residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms in the home. The District Court dismissed the suit, but the D. C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms and that the city’s total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when necessary for self-defense, violated that right.
1. The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. Pp. 2–53.
(a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. Pp. 2–22.
(b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause. The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. Pp. 22–28.
(c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 28–30.
(d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms. Pp. 30–32.
(e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century also supports the Court’s conclusion. Pp. 32–47.
(f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpretation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual-rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 47–54.
2. Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 54–56.
3. The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfy his prayer for relief and does not address the licensing requirement. Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home. Pp. 56–64.
478 F. 3d 370, affirmed.
Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined.