District of Columbia v. Heller & the 2nd Amendment

The landmark case,District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), marks the first time the Supreme Court addressed the scope the Second Amendment. However the Supreme Court ruled, there would be a major change in how firearms laws were considered nationwide. The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Following this highly contentious 5-4 decision, the Second Amendment jurisprudence has been shaped by a wave of court decisions.

Challenged in Heller,was a series of laws that effectively banned handguns in the District of Columbia. The laws made it a crime to carry an unregistered handgun and prohibited the registration of handguns. A separate law made it a crime to carry an unlicensed handgun, allowing that the police chief “may issue” licenses for one year periods. Further the District required resident to keep their lawfully owned firearms inoperable in the home, keeping them either disassembled or to use a trigger-lock. Respondent in Heller, challenged these laws as a denial of an individual’s rights under the Second Amendment.

Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, in the 5-4 decision. As the scope of the Second Amendment was one of first impression, the Court had to address all aspects of the Second Amendment. First, the Court stated that through exhaustive analysis, the Second Amendment was an individual right unrelated to serving in the militia. This allowed all Americans to claim the protections of the Second Amendment, regardless of how the Court went on to articulate them. Second, the Court defined the terms of the Second Amendment. The term ‘arms,’ as defined as “weapons that were not specifically designed for military use and were not employed in military capacity.” The court defined the “keep and bear” language to mean the right to possess and carry for the particular purpose of confrontation. Taken altogether, the Second Amendment,“guarantees the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” Third, the Court further stated this right, like those under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, was a natural right pre-existing the Constitution. In determining the scope of the Second Amendment rights, Justice Scalia looked to a wide array of historical sources from before the Constitution to the 20th century. The Court further stated that, like the First Amendment, the rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment are not unlimited.

In likening the Second Amendment to the First, Justice Scalia stated, “we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the rights of citizens to speak for any purpose.”  Scalia points to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 179 (1939), which states that the Second Amendment protections extends only to certain types of weapons, those typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes. In Miller, the Court determined that a short-barreled shotgun did not fall within this category, and thus the right to possess it was outside of the scope of the Second Amendment. Justice Scalia clarified, what he deemed a silly argument, that the Second Amendment protections protect an individuals’ right to “keep and bear” weapons that would be necessary to defend against a modern military, such as tanks or bombers.

Further, Justice Scalia explicitly states that the Court’s decision should not be read to challenge long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by certain people, such as felons or the mentally ill. Nor should the decision case doubt on restrictions on carrying firearms in sensitive places, such as government buildings and schools. Finally, the decision should not be read to challenge laws imposing conditions or qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Justice Scalia states that the examples given in the decision contain an “inexhuastive list” and the Court does not intend to list all arms restrictions that fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment.  The Court states that the rights under the Second Amendment are those that were understood by the people who adopted them, regardless of whether they are deemed too broad or too narrow now.

In applying the clarified understanding of the Second Amendment to the hand-gun ban and trigger lock requirement, the Court ruled that both violate the Second Amendment. The Court recognized, “the inherent right to self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right,” and prohibition of an entire class of arms that Americans overwhelming choose for self-defense violates that core principle.  The Court stated that prohibiting handguns, but allowing other weapons does not make the ban Constitutional stating that, “the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon.”  The Court ruled the requirements that a handgun kept in the home be inoperable through a trigger lock or being disassembled was also a violation of the Second Amendment. These requirements made it impossible for the handgun to be used, “for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.”  The Court recognized that the standard for protections of Second Amendment rights of self-defense in the home were higher than elsewhere. Overall the court held: “the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violated the Second Amendment, as does the prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home inoperable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.”

The Court’s decision in Heller, did set forth several explicit limitations to the rights set forth in the Second Amendment. The first was the procedural matter that the challenged laws were federal laws, and applicability of the Second Amendment to the states was not addressed. Second, the Second Amendment protections’ apply only to certain types of weapons, those “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” Third, the Court tacitly allowed for licensing requirements so long as they were not arbitrary and capricious. Fourth, in ruling that the “core lawful purpose” of the Second Amendment was self-defense, the Court left open whether the rights of use and possession or firearms for other purposes should be held to a lower standard. Fifth, the Court left open what level of scrutiny should be used in Second Amendment challenges, only stating it must be a higher scrutiny than rational basis.  Sixth, the Court recognized that left in disarray the extent of the law, welcoming challenges through lower courts to decide it fully.