Second Amendment alive and well: District of Columbia v. Heller
Supreme Court decision protects individual’s right to possess a firearm for private use
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
June 27, 2008
The United States Supreme Court issued the most important Second Amendment decision in our nation’s history this week, determining that the right to keep and bear arms is indeed an individual right. The case is called District of Columbia v. Heller. This article will briefly describe the court’s ruling, but the court’s majority opinion, as well as the dissenting opinion, are attached in one document at the bottom of this page.
The question before the court was whether a District of Columbia prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home violates the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Justice Scalia delivered the Opinion of the Court.
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 disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Dick Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. Heller sued, with the case finally decided this week by the nation’s highest court.
The majority opinion goes through an exhaustive history, examining the right of the "people” and to both “keep” and to “bear” arms, concluding with “a strong presumption that the Second Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans.”
While the simple acknowledgement that the Second Amendment applies individually rather than to militias, the court’s opinion was not a broad-scale reversal of gun laws.
The court noted: “Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should 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.”
The court noted that the DC law at issue totally bans handgun possession in the home, as well as requires that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock at all times, rendering it inoperable. But the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The court stated, “The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of ‘arms’ that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute.”
“It is no answer to say, as petitioners do, that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms (i.e., long guns) is allowed. It is enough to note, as we have observed, that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon. There are many reasons that a citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police. Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid. “
“We must also address the District’s requirement (as plied to respondent’s handgun) that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times. This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.”
“In sum, we hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.”
In a note to the opinion, the court wrote: “We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns. But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”
To read the court’s majority opinion, and the dissenting opinion, click on the link below.