The case District of Columbia v. Heller is the landmark Supreme Court case decided in 2008, and written by the late great conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, which finally looked at the roots and origins of the Second Amendment and ruled that it confers not only a collective right to keep and bear arms when serving in a militia but also an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and for self-protection. The Second Amendment recognizes and guarantees gun rights for two articulated purposes. Both purposes involve self-defense and protection: The first is for the defense and protection of the state and the second is for the defense and protection of the individual.
We the People have the inalienable Right to Life. The corollary to that absolutely fundamental right is the right to defend and preserve it. Otherwise the right is only one recognized on paper. The right to defend one’s life implies that the individual be entitled to possess the same type of weapons, and of the same force, which may attempt to take his or her life.
The case stems from an incident, as we will see, that occurred in 1975 and which immediately resulted in the strictest gun control law in the nation – in the District of Columbia.
But first, let’s look at the wording of the Second Amendment:
“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.”
Next, let’s look at the context in which this Amendment has been added to the Constitution. To do that, let’s look at the Preamble to the first ten amendments (Bill of Rights):
“THE Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
Each of the first ten amendments to the Constitution (The Bill of Rights) holds a particular significance in the scope of government. And that significance is articulated by the Preamble which accompanied the Bill of Rights. The Preamble goes to the INTENT of our Founders and framers and to the understanding of the ground rules by which the States established and then agreed to create a general government. Remember, there were several states that would NOT have ratified and adopted the Constitution – that is, would NOT have joined the Union of states – if a Bill of Rights was not added.
How important was the Right to Keep and Bear Arms?? As will be discussed later, gun rights activist Don B. Kates, did extensive research into the history and the roots of our gun rights and the Second Amendment. In his research into the debates of the states in their ratifying conventions (1787-1790), he found that the number of states that recommended adding a guarantee of the right to have guns outnumbered those that recommended adding other rights.
North Carolina was one of those states.
North Carolina met in convention in 1788 (July 21 – August 4) and could not decide whether to adopt the US Constitution. The State adopted the Anti-Federalist position which held that the Constitution had the potential of concentrating too much power in a central government. To avoid this, those states argued that a Bill of Rights was needed to be added to the Constitution (“A Bill of Rights is what every free people are entitled to against every government” – Thomas Jefferson). North Carolina decided to wait it out – to see if a Bill of Rights would indeed be added. At that 1788 convention, the delegates drafted and adopted a “Declaration of Rights: (20 of them) and a set of Amendments (26 of them), which were forwarded to Congress. [See https://www.usconstitution.net/rat_nc.html]. One of those “Rights” was the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. It read:
“17. That the people have a right to Keep and Bear Arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that. in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”
The Constitution was eventually ratified by the requisite nine states on June 21, 1788 (New Hampshire being the ninth state to ratify) and so it went into effect and established our second American Union. The first US Congress was seated on March 4, 1789. (North Carolina was not part of the Union at that time and thus, not represented). In September 1789, the first US Congress adopted a set of amendments (which were written and submitted, as promised, by James Madison), which were sent to the States to be ratified as the US Bill of Rights. Once this was done, North Carolina called up a second convention two months later. The Constitution was ratified on November 21, 1789, making the state the twelfth state to ratify and join the Union.
So, let’s go back to 1975, the year that ultimately gave rise to the Heller case.
- Violent crime involving handguns was on the rise in the United States. Communities were no longer safe; the streets were no longer safe. Murders were up, robberies were up, aggravated assaults were up, there were car-jackings, home invasions, drug-related crimes, etc
- In 1974 alone, there were more than 890 incidents of violent crime (involving the illegal use of a firearm) every single day – with a disproportionate share of them being in DC
- In the 1970’s, DC was suffering from one of the highest levels of violent crimes (and poverty and drugs and venereal disease) in the country
- Fortune magazine called DC “one of the sickest cities in America”
- The majority of its residents were African-American, trapped in poverty, stuck on welfare, and succumbing to crime and drug use
- Prayer was taken out of public schools by the Supreme Court with the Engel v. Vitaleruling in 1962
- Bible readings were taken out of public schools by the Supreme Court with the Abington v. Schempp ruling in 1963
- LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, creating the welfare system we know today which has had disastrous effects on the advancement of black communities – providing and focusing on handouts that discourage self-improvement, advancement, independency, and responsibility
With respect to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and the “Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)” program (welfare, particularly aimed at inner-city blacks), Derryck Green, spokesman for Project 21 (Black Leadership Network) explained: “The disastrous effects of the government’s management of anti-poverty initiatives are recognizable across racial lines, but the destruction is particularly evident in the black community. It effectively subsidized the dissolution of the black family by rendering the black man’s role as a husband and a father irrelevant, invisible and — more specifically — disposable. The result has been several generations of blacks born into broken homes and broken communities experiencing social, moral and economic chaos. It fosters an inescapable dependency that primarily, and oftentimes solely, relies on government to sustain livelihoods.” The unintended consequences – institutionalized poverty, crime, drugs, broken families, lack of education, etc were prevalent in DC in the 1970’s.
On a Sunday in June 1975, two men broke into a hardware store with pistols and committed armed robbery, firing shots at the guards while customers were in the store. The store was owned by John Hechinger, who also happened to be the first chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia (= city council of DC)
Two years earlier, in December 1973, the US Congress relinquished governance over the District of Columbia and established “home rule,” giving the city’s residents the right of self-governance…. Finally. However, the government still maintained ultimate authority; it could over-ride laws that it did not approve of.
In July 1976, John Hechinger helped to pass the most stringent gun control law in the nation:
- Banned shotguns completely
- Required that shotguns and rifles must be kept unloaded, disassembled, and locked in one’s home
- Long guns (rifles, shotgun) could be assembled for recreation purposes only, such as hunting
- Banned the use of “long guns” (including shotgun) for non-recreational purposes (hence, they could not be used for self-defense)
In other words, even if a person owned a shotgun, he or she couldn’t use it against an armed burglar coming through the door.
Interestingly, a young first-term Republican Congressman from southern Texas, Ron Paul, who had a particular aversion to big ambitious government and who would go on to found the Liberty movement, tried to over-turn the gun ban in Congress. Although Congress had given DC “home rule,” it still retained the right to revise its laws should it feel the need to do so. [The bill passed; however, the wording was so sloppy that it was ineffective at overturning the ban].
When the DC gun ban went into effect, Second Amendment jurisprudence wasn’t very well-articulated. The prevailing view was that the Second Amendment articulated a “militia theory” of gun rights. That is, a “collective right.” Only when an individual was serving or able to serve in a state militia would he be entitled to keep and bear arms. Those arms, accordingly, would only be allowed when serving in a militia.
In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled in the case United States v. Miller that “a sawed-off shotgun is not a typical weapon used by a militia and thus is not protected under the Second Amendment,” thus apparently endorsing the “militia theory” or “collective right” view of the Second Amendment.
Note that the Supreme Court never really officially endorsed the “Militia” theory (or Collective Right theory) of the Second Amendment because it never bothered to do a deep dive into its history or original meaning, but it certainly appeared it tended that way in 1939 with the Miller case. For many decades after the opinion, the lower federal courts adopted the “militia theory” and the Supreme Court never objected or took cases to correct this view. In fact, the justices of the Supreme Court declined for 70 years to rule on any Second Amendment case.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, and even into the 1960’s, the US practiced and even institutionalized civil rights violations against African-Americans. There was the Jim Crow era, followed by the violent Civil Rights era, when those institutions of racism finally came toppling down. Before that, freed slaves and their children were victimized and persecuted by the Democratic Ku Klux Klan – militant members of the Southern Democratic Party intent on maintaining white supremacy in the South by preventing blacks from voting and having any meaningful civic voice in southern society. Most people don’t know that one of the primary objects of the Ku Klux Klan was to visit the homes of freed blacks and take their guns away. Blacks could not be permitted to have firearms; they could not be permitted to defend themselves or to harm whites.
In the summer of 1963, a gun-rights activist named Don Kates stood guard outside the home of a local civil rights activist in eastern NC with an M1 Carbine in one hand and a Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special revolver in the other hand. That activist, a woman, was to be a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit and she had been receiving death threats. Eastern North Carolina was Ku Klux Klan country and the police too often sided with the Klan. Good men, civilians, armed with firearms would have to protect her and Don Kates volunteered for the job. Kates had just completed his first year at Yale Law School and was volunteering at a law firm in North Carolina working on civil rights cases. The experience of providing protection for a woman facing death threats taught Kates a valuable lesson: For oppressed people who can’t rely on the police, having a gun is sometimes the only means of self-protection. This was especially true for African-Americans who had a history of being oppressed and being denied access and ownership of guns. [Adam Winkler, “Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” (2011)]
Later in the 1970’s when he went into private practice, Kates began to represent clients in civil rights cases. To best do so, he researched the history of the Second Amendment. Eventually, over the next couple of years, he published a series of articles in various legal magazines and journals on gun rights, the most notable being the Michigan Law Review. [Don Kates, “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment,” Michigan Law Review 82 (1983): 204]. That article in the Michigan Law Review was the first article ever to appear in a law review from a top ten law school arguing that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to keep firearms for self-defense. This article would help revolutionize Second Amendment jurisprudence by tying it to its original meaning and intent. [Adam Winkler, “Gun Fight….”]
But Kates’ article wasn’t actually the first to articulate this “Individual Right” view of the Second Amendment. That distinction would belong to Robert Sprecher, a Chicago lawyer, in 1965. Every year, the American Bar Association (ABA) sponsored an essay competition on constitutional law issues. The winning essay is published in the ABA Journal, the most widely-circulated legal periodical. In 1965, the question posed was this: “What does the Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right of the people to keep and bear arms,’ mean? Does the guarantee extend to the keeping and bearing of arms for private purposes not connected with a militia?” The winning essay was written by Sprecher (who, incidentally, went on to being nominated to the federal bench by President Nixon). [Robert Sprecher, “The Lost Amendment,” American Bar Association Journal 51 (1965)]. In his essay, he argued that the original meaning of the Second Amendment had been lost. According to his research into its historical roots, the Founding Fathers sought to secure “the right to arm a state militia AND also the right of the individual to keep and bear arms” for personal self-protection. [Adam Winkler, “Gun Fight….”]
Clark Neily, who we will meet very shortly, considered Kates’ article in the Michigan Law Review the “seminal work” on the Individual Rights theory of the Second Amendment. It had a profound impact on his view of gun rights. To be fair, Kates didn’t deny that the Founding Fathers were concerned primarily with the militia when they conceived of, drafted, and adopted the Second Amendment, but the evidence (according to Kates) suggests that it was precisely by protecting the individual in his right to keep and bear arms that the Framers intended to protect the militia. As long as individuals had the fundamental right to keep and bear arms, unburdened by government, the militia would always exist. “The one thing all the Framers agreed on was the desirability of allowing citizens to arm themselves,” he wrote in his article. The Second Amendment was designed to keep the government from disarming the civilian population. And this makes sense being that it was the King George’s command to disarm the colonists that led to the shots that started the fight for independence. [Ibid]
In his research into the debates of the states in their ratifying conventions (1787-1790), Don Kates found that the number of states that recommended adding a guarantee of the right to have guns outnumbered those that recommended adding other rights. “Amending the Constitution to assure the right to arms was endorsed by five state ratifying conventions. By comparison, only four states suggested that the rights to assemble, to due process, and against cruel and unusual punishment be guaranteed, and only three states suggested that freedom of speech be guaranteed.” [Don Kates, “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment,” Michigan Law Review].
While the wording of the Second Amendment had confused generations of Americans, Kates sought to actually understood what those words meant to the Founding Fathers (which is an “originalist” approach). Supporters of the “Militia Theory” of the amendment saw the grant of the right to keep and bear arms “to the people,” which seemed to indicate a collective right. That is, only when individuals assembled to form a militia does the Second Amendment protect their right to have and bear arms. It would also offer guidance as to which firearms would likely be protected. But Kates’ Michigan Law Review article offered a different explanation. A simple look at the Bill of Rights shows many other examples of provisions where the Founding Fathers and drafters took the phrase “the right of the people” to mean individual rights. The First Amendment, for example, refers to the right of the people… to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Fourth Amendment refers to the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Tenth Amendment explicitly distinguished “the people” from “the States,” providing that the “powers delegated” to Congress “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People.” So, then, a reading of the Second Amendment… “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” would indicate that an individual right to be armed is articulated. [Ibid]
In 1989, one of the foremost liberal constitutional law professors in the country, Sanford Levinson, published an article in the Yale Law Journal endorsing Kates’ view of the Second Amendment. [Sanford Levinson, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” Yale Law Review 99 (1989): 637].
In the years following Kates’ article in the Michigan Law Review, and particularly in the years 1989-1995, more academic research was done regarding the Second Amendment than had been done in the previous 200 years.
Kates would become the most influential proponent of the view that the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to guarantee the right of private individuals to own firearms for their protection and that of their families.
So then comes the turn of the century… early 2002. Legal scholars began to wonder what exactly is the nature of the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. There has been growing scholarship on the original meaning of the Second Amendment which tended to protect both the right to bear arms to serve in a militia and to bear arms for self-protection yet the prevailing earlier view had been the Collective or Militia Theory only.
What does the Second Amendment really mean? Does it only assure Americans that Congress would NOT have the power to destroy state militias by disarming the people? Or does it also assure Americans that Congress will NOT have the power to deny their right to have firearms for self-protection? Does it confer a Collective right or also an Individual Right?
“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.” [Collective Right]
“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.” [Individual Right]
OR, are there two types of gun rights articulated? Are there two types of rights that “Shall Not be Infringed” – the right of a state to have a well-regulated militia (hence, individuals, which necessarily comprise the militia, must have the right to keep and bear arms to serve in it) and right of the individual to keep and bear arms for personal protection. Again, both of these reflect a general right of self-defense and preservation and both absolutely are grounded in the right of the individual to keep and bear arms.
The question was this: Would the Supreme Court be willing – finally – to rule on a modern-day Second Amendment case? Would the time be right? Would the Court be likely to embrace the new and growing view of the Second Amendment, which is that it guarantees the individual a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and self-protection (including against a tyrannical government)?
At a happy hour in DC in early 2002, two young lawyers who worked at the Institute for Justice, Clark Neily III and Steve Simpson, were drinking and talking constitutional law – always a powerful combination. Their discussion turned to the right to bear arms. They noted that for too many decades, the federal courts held that the Second Amendment protected only the right to have guns for the purpose of serving in a state militia, but that over the past 15-20 years or so, there have been important developments in the understanding and history of the amendment. Characterizing themselves as libertarians, the believed that it is individuals who should be able to decide for themselves how best to safeguard their lives and to protect their homes and their families, without government insinuating its political agenda. In their alcohol-induced legal excitement, they suggested that the time might be ripe to get the Supreme Court to reconsider the meaning of the Second Amendment.
The Growing Scholarship and the Shift in the Understanding of the Meaning of The Second Amendment:
- Robert Sprecher’s article in the American Bar Association Journal (1965)
- Don Kates’ article in the Michigan Law Review (1983)
- Sanford Levinson’s article in the Yale Law Journal (1989) .
- President George W. Bush, through his Attorney General John Ashcroft, announced his administration’s rejection of long-standing White House policy regarding the Second Amendment (Bush rejected the Militia Theory in favor the Individual Right’s view). The NRA, a major backer of Bush, supported him on this policy change.
- In 2001, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (in Texas) took Ashcroft’s cue and held that earlier rulings interpreting the Second Amendment to apply only to state militias had been wrong. “The original meaning of the Second Amendment was to guarantee individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms.” [United States v. Emerson]. ** This case marked a profound shift in Second Amendment jurisprudence.
- In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese III sought to add as many strong conservative judges and justices to the federal court system. He particularly sought to appoint those who adopted the philosophy of Originalism. During his first two years in office, President Reagan appointed half of the federal judges in America, along with three new Supreme Court justices.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the Everson case. Everson was a gun owner who had threatened to hurt innocent people, and because of his threats, had a restraining order against him by a court of law. Perhaps the Court declined to take the case because the person challenging the gun control law, Timothy Joe Everson, was a dangerous man; he was an offensive challenger. Perhaps, as Neily and Simpson, reasoned, the Supreme Court might be more inclined to hear a Second Amendment case if it involved a law-abiding person who simply wanted or needed to own a gun for self-defense.
BUILDING THE PERFECT CASE (the “Test” Case)
First, of course, the Court has to be receptive to what the lawyers want to ask of it, which is to abandon the Military Theory of the right to keep and bear arms in favor of an Individual Right to do so. Was the Supreme Court conservative enough at the time? At the time (2002-2005), the conservatives members were Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, with Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote. Liberal members were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Stephen Breyer. [Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down in 2005, and President Bush nominated John Roberts to replace him. But just before the Senate Confirmation Committee was set to act, Rehnquist died unexpectedly. So Bush nominated Roberts to replace him as Chief Justice and Samuel Alito to replace O’Connor. Roberts was confirmed in September 2005 and Alito was confirmed in Jan. 2006].
The Court was conservative compared to the progressive Warren and Burger courts. Earl Warren was Chief Justice from 1953-69 and presided over such landmark cases as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963), which took prayer and Bible readings out of schools, respectively), Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), somehow finding a blanket right to privacy and thus serving as the precursor to Roe v. Wade, and enlarging due process rights for criminal defendants (including Miranda rights and publicly-funded attorneys). Warren Burger was Chief Justice from 1969-1986 and presided over such cases as Roe v. Wade (1973) which articulated the right to an abortion, Regents of the University of California v. Baake(1978) which upheld affirmative action policies in universities, and several cases defining the limits of free speech and free press.
A good case for the justices of the Supreme Court to re-address the Second Amendment is one with sympathetic, law-abiding plaintiffs who have an understandable reason to be armed, preferably ordinary individuals who rightfully fear violent criminals or who live in a crime-ridden area. The best-case scenario would be to have individuals who have actually been threatened with harm or death or who have already been victims of crime. A good case would be one that reaches the ultimate merits of the issue (which is that the Second Amendment affirms a constitutional and individual right to keep and bear arms) and not be decided on any extraneous issues. A good case would have constitutional significance.
Neily and Simpson began to plan on how to get a Second Amendment case to the relatively conservative Supreme Court.
I. The first decision to make was which city’s gun control law would they target. The easy answer was Washington DC.
(a) It was the strictest gun control law in the nation
(b) Under the law, everyone, even law-abiding citizens, were banned from owning a handgun
(c) Even if an individual owned a shotgun or rifle for a legal purpose under the law (hunting), it would be ILLEGAL (a crime) to use that legally-owned firearm for self-defense should an armed robber or murder break into his home
(d) DC is technically ruled by the federal government; it is not a state but rather, a federal territory. Although DC was granted “home rule,” the Constitution gives Congress the ultimate authority over the area. (That is why Ron Paul was able to seek and pass legislation to try to limit the effect of the gun-control law). The Second Amendment (as all of the Bill of Rights) is a restriction only on the federal government. [That is, by challenging DC’s gun law instead of, say New York City’s gun law, Neily and Simpson would only need to convince the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to have guns. That would be a challenge, given the Miller case precedent, but it would be less difficult than having to persuade the Court to also rule that the amendment applies to the States through the 14th Amendment. The McDonald v. City of Chicago case would do that in 2010].
II. Neily and Simpson were relatively unknowns, with no money to build the case. They would need to find the perfect person to finance the case. A friend of Neily’s, a fellow co-clerk in DC and a wealthy individual, Robert Levy agreed to finance. He was then a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. (Levy decided to go to law school at the age of 50. Although he was absolutely brilliant and could have gone to any law school he chose, he decided to attend George Mason Law School because it was a conservative law school. Its professors lean clearly to the right unlike the professors at almost all other law schools). At this point, Simpson had to drop out because of the pressures of his job.
III. Next, Neily and Levy had to find a suitable attorney to lead the case. Neither Neily or Levy considered themselves capable to do so. The decided on a young libertarian lawyer named Alan Gura who they remembered in their libertarian circles as a proponent of both guns and marijuana being legal (“individuals have the right to do with their lives without government interference”). Gura was sharp but he had never argued a case before the Supreme Court.
IV. The second major decision to make was to select the Perfect Plaintiff (ie, the person to represent the issue, the lead name on the case).
(a) Dick Heller. Dick Heller was a white man who worked as a security guard at a federal building in Washington – the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judicial Center. He lived in DC across the street from an abandoned federal housing project. That housing project was built in the 1960’s, in furtherance of LBJ’s “war on poverty.” Thirty years later, the units were run down and decrepit – with rotted out walls and collapsing ceilings. The only people who found the place habitable were heroin and crack addicts. Consequently, a drug gang moved into the area and operated out of the complex. The drugs and the gang brought with them violence – routine shootings and killings. The police were happy to ignore the area. But Dick Heller had to exist in this neighborhood. At night he would hear the gunshots and try to ignore them. One night he returned home to find a stray bullet had struck his front door. At work, he carried a handgun on his hip to protect the people who worked there (federal employees), but because of DC’s then 20-year-old gun ban, he had to leave it there when he returned home each day. In 2002, prompted by the suggestion of a close friend, Heller applied for a gun permit and went through the frustrating and futile exercise of applying for a gun permit. Also at the suggestion of his friend, he documented the ordeal as a testament to the practical impossibility of obtaining and keeping a gun for home protection in the district.
While there was rarely any threat of violence at work, the situation at home was very different. There existed a real threat, an actual threat, of violence in his neighborhood. Yet the DC gun control law banned him from possessing a firearm to defend himself.
The only negative that Neily, Levy, and Gura could find (which might have an unfavorable impression on the Court) was that Heller was overly obsessed with his gun rights and was prone to making potentially disturbing political statements.
(b) Shelly Parker. In 2002, Shelly Parker, an elderly African-American woman and former nurse, moved to a neighborhood not far from Capitol Hill, in an area where drug dealers sold their drugs right out in the open. Determined to keep her neighborhood clean, she became a one-woman Community Watch, keeping an eye out on the streets and calling the police whenever she saw someone buying drugs. The drug dealers caught on and responded with intimidation – smashing her car window, stealing her security camera, and driving a car into her back fence. One night, a drug dealer stood at her gate and shouted: “Bitch, I’ll kill you! I live on this block too.” Parker began to fear for her life, believing that the drug dealers would eventually make good on their threats. When she called the police to tell them of the threats, one officer told her point blank: “Get a gun.” The officer certainly knew that owning a gun was against the law, but he also knew that it was the only sure way to protect her life. He understood, as she did, that the DC gun law left citizens like her defenseless and putting her life in danger. As Parker said: “The only thing between me and somebody entering my home are harsh words. That’s all I have.” Parker was an attractive plaintiff for many reasons: She was a very sympathetic elderly woman, defenseless, victimized, in actual fear of her life, and African-American. She had stood up to violent drug dealers at great risk to her life. Why does it matter that she was African-American? Because history has been cruel to African-Americans in this country. First they were slaves and even when they were freed, the South legislatively imposed second-class status on them with the segregation laws known as the Jim Crow laws. After Reconstruction and as the Southern states were trying to re-establish their white dominated society, the Ku Klux Klan went around terrorizing and intimidating free slaves but most importantly, confiscating their guns. Laws were put in place in the post-Reconstruction South (the Jim Crow South) forbidding blacks to own guns, or making it almost impossible to get one. Freed slaves were intentionally left defenseless.
Gura chose Shelly Parker. She was a far more sympathetic and compelling plaintiff.
THE ROCKY ROAD to the SUPREME COURT
1). Gura filed the lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Columbia on February 10, 2003. As mentioned above, the lead plaintiff chosen was Shelly Parker and so the case name, as filed, was Parker v. District of Columbia.
2). After Gura filed the complaint against the District of Columbia, the NRA, totally unexpectedly, filed its own lawsuit.. In that lawsuit, the NRA not only asserting the “Individual Rights” view of the Second Amendment but also including what is called “trap doors” – additional, extraneous claims that the courts could use to decide the case by avoiding the Second Amendment question. Neily and Simpson decided to bring the case, and Levy put his own money behind it, NOT to simply strike down the DC’s handgun ban. They wanted to resurrect the Second Amendment. The NRA wanted just the opposite. Note, the NRA hired as its leading attorney the renowned Steve Halbrook – the nation’s leading expert on the right to bear arms. Halbrook was Neily and Levy’s first choice, but unfortunately, he was too expensive for their budget. Halbrook had plenty of experience trying gun cases; Gura had none.
Gura did not expect the NRA’s lawsuit. He had thought the organization would have supported their lawsuit to assert the Individual Rights view of the Second Amendment. The NRA’s concerns, however, were two-fold (and conflicting): (1) On the one hand, it didn’t want to challenge the prevailing “Militia Theory” view of the Second Amendment because gun control laws were their bread and butter. Nothing advances its fund-raising efforts more than alerting gun enthusiasts and club members that their gun rights are being infringed by gun-control laws. (2) On the other hand, the NRA was in favor of the individual rights view but they thought the timing for such a lawsuit was not right – they could not be sure that they had the necessary votes on the Supreme Court to shift from the Militia view. [Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had disappointed conservatives by siding strongly with progressives on abortion and on affirmative action, and Justice John Paul Stevens was uber liberal and anti-gun. Both were likely to be replaced by President Bush].
3). The NRA sought to have the cases consolidated, thereby hijacking Gura’s case by bringing in the “trap door” claims. Also, the NRA hoped that it would be Halbrook, and not Gura, who would argue the case. Essentially, the point of the NRA’s litigation tactic was this: “If we can’t control the litigation, there won’t be any litigation!” Luckily, in July 2003, the district court judge, Emmett Sullivan, reached a decision – the two cases should not be consolidated. Alan Gura successfully survived the first hurdle.
4). Unable to derail Gura’s lawsuit with consolidation, the NRA tried Plan B – It convinced Senator Orrin Hatch to introduce a bill in Congress, the “District of Columbia Personal Protection Act” which would over-turn the DC gun law and permit DC residents to possess handguns. If the bill passed then Gura’s lawsuit would be moot and thrown out of court. [The bill passed the Senate and was fast-tracked to the House floor in 2007 where it was expected to pass, but then the shooting at Virginia Tech happened on April 16 and it doomed the bill].
5). In March 2004, Judge Sullivan ruled that the court was bound by the US v. Millerruling (1939) which held, although ambiguously, that the Second Amendment applied only to state militias and therefore dismissed Gura’s lawsuit. Gura actually expected this. What he didn’t expect was how long it would take for Sullivan to make it. In the meantime, the judge handling the NRA case had also issued a dismissal. Because the NRA case was dismissed first, it meant that Steve Halbrook had the chance to file an appeal before Gura did – which he did. Timing is everything. Here is why it mattered: Halbrook filed an appeal on behalf of the NRA and so when Gura filed his appeal, the DC Circuit Court (of Appeals) ruled that Gura’s case would be put on hold pending the ruling of the appeal in the NRA case. In other words, Halbrook would get to argue his case before a panel of appellate judges and Gura would not. The NRA, in effect, now had control of the litigation regarding the DC gun control law.
6). In 2005, the DC Circuit Court heard the NRA’s appeal. Being persuaded by an argument that DOJ Attorney General John Ashcroft made asserting that the plaintiffs in the NRA’s case lacked standing, being that none of them had tried to register a handgun nor been arrested for having one, the NRA’s lawsuit was dismissed. [Remember that Dick Heller had standing; he had an actual injury. He not only applied for a permit for his revolver but he documented how frustrating and futile the process was]. Gura survived yet another hurdle, because with the NRA case out of the picture, the DC Circuit could then hear Parker’s appeal.
7). Gura appeared before the 3-judge panel of the DC Circuit in early December 2006. The attorney for the District of Columbia, Todd Kim (a distinguished Harvard Law School graduate) challenged all of the plaintiffs as not having standing to sue the District of Columbia over its gun law. He insisted that none of them had really been hurt; none had suffered a direct injury as a result of the gun ban. The panel agreed as to all plaintiffs except Dick Heller. Heller had been directly harmed. He had applied for a gun permit and was denied. And so, in 2007, with the DC Circuit Court’s ruling, Parker v. District of Columbia was renamed Heller v. District of Columbia, with Dick Heller as the sole plaintiff.
8). In February 2007, the DC Circuit handed down is decision in Parker v. District of Columbia (renamed, Heller v. District of Columbia), with 2 of the 3 judges ruling against the District of Columbia. The majority opinion, written by Judge Silberman, strongly endorsed the Individual Rights view of the Second Amendment. “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms.” Silberman’s arguments were very closely aligned with the arguments made twenty-five years earlier by Don Kates in his Michigan Law Review article. “The People,” whose right is guaranteed in the Second Amendment, are the same individuals who are guaranteed the rights enumerated in the First and Fourth Amendments, and the “Militia” refers to all able-bodied citizens who were expected to have their own guns, to be trained and experienced, and even comfortable, in their use when called into service. In other words, because able-bodied citizens had the right to keep and bear arms, they could be called to serve in a state militia. Arming the militia may have been the primary reason the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment, as Silberman wrote, but it was not the only one. The right to bear arms that the colonists (and our Founding Fathers and founding generation) inherited from England also included the right to defend one’s home from violent attack and the right to defend the individual from the tyranny of government. Reaching the ultimate issue, the constitutionality of the DC gun ban, Silberman concluded 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 the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.
9). Unfortunately, the ruling only applied in the District of Columbia. It didn’t stand as binding precedent anywhere else in the country. Neily, Levy, and Gura’s goal all along was to try a Second Amendment case with constitutional significance. Their goal was a definitive ruling by the US Supreme Court. The problem, however, was that the losing party has the right to file an appeal and not the winning party. If the District of Columbia decided not to seek an appeal and instead, just amend its gun law, Neily, Levy, and Gura were screwed. But as luck would have it, on September 4, 2007, the District of Columbia filed a “Writ of Certiorari” with the Supreme Court, requesting the court to review its case.
10). On November 20, 2007, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia received word that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear their appeal.
11). Also in 2007, in anticipation of the upcoming case, the state of Montana’s lawmakers passed a resolution demanding that the Supreme Court hold that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. The resolution said that when Montana agreed to join the Union in 1889, its people believed that the US Constitution protected the right of individuals to possess guns for self-protection, and not just a right tied to state militias. According to the Resolution, Supreme Court ruling rejecting the individual rights view of the Second Amendment would “violate Montana’s Compact with the United States” and Montana “reserves all usual rights and remedies under historic compact/contract law if its Compact should be violated.” In other words, the Second Amendment’s meaning as an individual right to keep and bear arms was so critical that Montana was threatening to secede from the Union should the Court rule against such a view.
12). On March 18, 2008, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Heller case. Walter Dellinger represented the District of Columbia and Alan Gura represented Dick Heller. Each lawyer was initially given 30 minutes to argue the merits of its case (although they were eventually given some extra time). U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement was given 15 minutes to present the federal government’s views. Almost immediately, Scalia’s questions and comments made it abundantly clear that he was strongly in favor of the Individual Right view of the Second Amendment. And Gura was fairly confident that Kennedy would agree with the Individual Rights view as well. Heller’s team was optimistic.
13) The case was decided on June 26, 2008. On that day, the lawyers were called to the Supreme Court building and waited for the justices to file in and take their seats. After an opening opinion was read, Chief Justice John Roberts announced: “Justice Scalia will have our decision in 07-290.” That was the docket number of the Heller case. Once it was announced that Scalia was the author of the opinion, “that was when we knew the opinion was in our favor,” said Gura. It was the first time in American history that a gun control law violated with Second Amendment to the Constitution !! It was a long-time coming, but the Supreme Court finally articulated the correct meaning and intent of the Second Amendment.
THE HELLER OPINION IS HANDED DOWN – [District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf]
The Supreme Court, in Heller, AFFIRMED the DC Circuit Court ruling.
The opinion, written by Justice Scalia, can be summed up by these excerpts:
We turn first to the meaning of the Second Amendment…. In interpreting this text, we are guided by the principle that “the Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning.” The two sides in this case have set out very different interpretations of the Amendment. Petitioners and today’s dissenting Justices believe that it protects only the right to possess and carry a firearm in connection with militia service. Respondent Heller argues that it 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.
The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. The Amendment could be rephrased, “Because a well-regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
Let’s first look at the “Operative Clause.” The first salient feature of the operative clause is that it codifies a “right of the people.” The unamended Constitution and the Bill of Rights use the phrase “right of the people” two other times, in the First Amendment’s Assembly-and-Petition Clause and in the Fourth Amendment’s Search-and-Seizure Clause. The Ninth Amendment uses very similar terminology (“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”). All three of these instances unambiguously refer to individual rights, not “collective” rights, or rights that may be exercised only through participation in some corporate body. There are three provisions of the Constitution that refer to “the people” in a context other than “rights”—the famous preamble (“We the people”), §2 of Article I (providing that “the people” will choose members of the House), and the Tenth Amendment (providing that those powers not given the Federal Government remain with “the States” or “the people”). Those provisions arguably refer to “the people” acting collectively—but they deal with the exercise or reservation of powers, not rights. Nowhere else in the Constitution does a “right” attributed to “the people” refer to anything other than an individual right.
This contrasts markedly with the phrase “the militia” in the prefatory clause. As we will describe below, the “militia” in colonial America consisted of a subset of “the people”—those who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range. Reading the Second Amendment as protecting only the right to “keep and bear Arms” in an organized militia therefore fits poorly with the operative clause’s description of the holder of that right as “the people.” We start therefore with a strong presumption that the Second Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans.
The most natural reading of “keep Arms” in the Second Amendment is to “have weapons.” “Keep arms” was simply a common way of referring to possessing arms, for militiamen and everyone else. At the time of the founding, as now, to “bear” meant to “carry.” In 1998, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “surely a most familiar meaning is, as the Constitution’s Second Amendment . . . indicates: ‘wear, bear, or carry . . . upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose . . . of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.’”
From our review of founding-era sources, we conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that “bear arms” had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, “bear arms” was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia. The most prominent examples are those most relevant to the Second Amendment: Nine state constitutional provisions written in the 18th century or the first two decades of the 19th, which enshrined a right of citizens to “bear arms in defense of themselves and the state” or “bear arms in defense of himself and the state.” It is clear from those formulations that “bear arms” did not refer only to carrying a weapon in an organized military unit.
Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment. We look to this because it has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.” As we said in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553 (1876), “this is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed . . . .”
Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents. Under the auspices of the 1671 Game Act, for example, the Catholic James II had ordered general disarmaments of regions home to his Protestant enemies. These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment. It was clearly an individual right, having nothing whatever to do with service in a militia. To be sure, it was an individual right not available to the whole population, given that it was restricted to Protestants, and like all written English rights it was held only against the Crown, not Parliament. But it was secured to them as individuals. By the time of the founding, the right to have arms had become fundamental for English subjects. According to William Blackstone, whose works (“Commentaries on the Laws of England”), this Court has held, constituted the preeminent authority on English law for the founding generation, cited the arms provision of the Bill of Rights as one of the fundamental rights of Englishmen. [See Blackstone, Volume 1, pp. 136, 139–140]. His description of it cannot possibly be thought to tie it to militia or military service. It was, he said, “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation” and “the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defense.” (pg. 139)
Thus, the right secured in 1689 as a result of the Stuarts’ abuses was by the time of the founding understood to be an individual right protecting against both public and private violence. And, of course, what the Stuarts had tried to do to their political enemies, George III had tried to do to the colonists. In the tumultuous decades of the 1760’s and 1770’s, the Crown began to disarm the inhabitants of the most rebellious areas. That provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms. A New York article of April 1769 said that “it is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defense.” They understood the right to enable individuals to defend themselves. As the most important early American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries (by the law professor and former Anti-Federalist St. George Tucker) made clear in the notes to the description of the arms right, Americans understood the “right of self-preservation” as permitting a citizen to “repel force by force” when “the intervention of society in his behalf, may be too late to prevent an injury.” [See Blackstone’s Commentaries, Vol. 1; pp. 145–146 (1803)]
Thus there seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not. Thus, 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 right of citizens to speak for any purpose.
Three important founding-era legal scholars interpreted the Second Amendment in published writings. All three understood it to protect an individual right unconnected with militia service. St. George Tucker’s version of Blackstone’s Commentaries, as we explained above, conceived of the Blackstonian arms right as necessary for self-defense. He equated that right, absent the religious and class-based restrictions, with the US Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment. Tucker elaborated on the Second Amendment: “This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty . . . . The right to self-defense is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine the right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.” He believed that the English game laws had abridged the right by prohibiting “keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game.” He later grouped the right with some of the individual rights included in the First Amendment and said that if “a law be passed by congress, prohibiting” any of those rights, it would “be the province of the judiciary to pronounce whether any such act were constitutional, or not; and if not, to acquit the accused . . . .” It is unlikely that Tucker was referring to a person’s being “accused” of violating a law making it a crime to bear arms in a state militia.
In 1825, William Rawle, a prominent lawyer who had been a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly that ratified the Bill of Rights, published an influential treatise, which analyzed the Second Amendment as follows: “The first principle is a declaration that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state; a proposition from which few will dissent. . . . “The corollary, from the first position is, that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. “The prohibition is general. No clause in the constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretense by a state legislature. But if in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either should attempt it, this amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both.” Like Tucker, Rawle regarded the English game laws as violating the right codified in the Second Amendment. Rawle clearly differentiated between the people’s right to bear arms and their service in a militia: “In a people permitted and accustomed to bear arms, we have the rudiments of a militia, which properly consists of armed citizens, divided into military bands, and instructed at least in part, in the use of arms for the purposes of war.” Rawle further said that the Second Amendment right ought not “be abused to the disturbance of the public peace,” such as by assembling with other armed individuals “for an unlawful purpose”—statements that make no sense if the right does not extend to any individual purpose.. Story explained that the English Bill of Rights had also included a “right to bear arms,” a right that, as we have discussed, had nothing to do with militia service. He then equated the English right with the Second Amendment: “§1891. A similar provision [to the Second Amendment] in favor of protestants (for to them it is confined) is to be found in the bill of rights of 1688, it being declared, ‘that the subjects, which are protestants, may have arms for their defense suitable to their condition, and as allowed by law.’ But under various pretenses the effect of this provision has been greatly narrowed; and it is at present in England more nominal than real, as a defensive privilege.” This comparison to the Declaration of Right would not make sense if the Second Amendment right was the right to use a gun in a militia, which was plainly not what the English right protected.
As the Tennessee Supreme Court recognized thirty-eight years after Story wrote his Commentaries, “the passage from Story, shows clearly that this right was intended . . . and was guaranteed to, and to be exercised and enjoyed by the citizen as such, and not by him as a soldier, or in defense solely of his political rights.” Story’s Commentariesalso cite as support Tucker and Rawle, both of whom clearly viewed the right as unconnected to militia service. In addition, in a shorter 1840 work, Story wrote: “One of the ordinary modes, by which tyrants accomplish their purposes without resistance, is, by disarming the people, and making it an offence to keep arms, and by substituting a regular army in the stead of a resort to the militia.”
Antislavery advocates routinely invoked the right to bear arms for self-defense. Joel Tiffany, for example, citing Blackstone’s description of the right, wrote that “the right to keep and bear arms, also implies the right to use them if necessary in self-defense; without this right to use the guaranty would have hardly been worth the paper it consumed.” In his famous Senate speech about the 1856 “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, Charles Sumner proclaimed: “The rifle has ever been the companion of the pioneer and, under God, his tutelary protector against the red man and the beast of the forest. Never was this efficient weapon more needed in just self-defense, than now in Kansas, and at least one article in our National Constitution must be blotted out, before the complete right to it can in any way be impeached. And yet such is the madness of the hour, that, in defiance of the solemn guarantee, embodied in the Amendments to the Constitution, that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,’ the people of Kansas have been arraigned for keeping and bearing them, and the Senator from South Carolina has had the face to say openly, on this floor, that they should be disarmed—of course, that the fanatics of Slavery, his allies and constituents, may meet no impediment.”
19th-century pre-Civil War cases that interpreted the Second Amendment universally support an individual right unconnected to militia service. In the famous fugitive-slave case of Johnson v. Tompkins, 13 F. Cas. 840, 850, 852 (CC Pa. 1833), Baldwin, sitting as a circuit judge, cited both the Second Amendment and the Pennsylvania analogue for his conclusion that a citizen has “a right to carry arms in defense of his property or person, and to use them, if either were assailed with such force, numbers or violence as made it necessary for the protection or safety of either.” In Nunn v. State, 1 Ga. 243, 251 (1846), the Georgia Supreme Court construed the Second Amendment as protecting the “natural right of self-defense” and therefore struck down a ban on carrying pistols openly. Its opinion perfectly captured the way in which the operative clause of the Second Amendment furthers the purpose announced in the prefatory clause, in continuity with the English right: “The right of the whole people, old and young, men, women and boys, and not militia only, to keep and bear arms of every description, and not such merely as are used by the militia, shall not be infringed, curtailed, or broken in upon, in the smallest degree; and all this for the important end to be attained: the rearing up and qualifying a well-regulated militia, so vitally necessary to the security of a free State. Our opinion is, that any law, State or Federal, is repugnant to the Constitution, and void, which contravenes this right, originally belonging to our forefathers, trampled underfoot by Charles I. and his two wicked sons and successors, re-established by the revolution of 1688, conveyed to this land of liberty by the colonists, and finally incorporated conspicuously in our own Magna Charta!”
Likewise, in State v. Chandler, 5 La. Ann. 489, 490 (1850), the Louisiana Supreme Court held that citizens had a right to carry arms openly: “This is the right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and which is calculated to incite men to a manly and noble defense of themselves, if necessary, and of their country, without any tendency to secret advantages and unmanly assassinations.” the state constitutional guarantee of the right to “bear” arms did not prohibit the banning of concealed weapons. In 1833, the Tennessee Supreme Court had treated the state constitutional provision as conferring a right “of all the free citizens of the State to keep and bear arms for their defense.” 21 years later the court held that the “keep” portion of the state constitutional right included the right to personal self-defense: “The right to keep arms involves, necessarily, the right to use such arms for all the ordinary purposes, and in all the ordinary modes usual in the country, and to which arms are adapted, limited by the duties of a good citizen in times of peace.”
Similarly, it was plainly the understanding in the post-Civil War Congress that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to use arms for self-defense. J. Ordronaux, in his 1891 book “Constitutional Legislation in the United States” 241–242 (1891), wrote: “The right to bear arms has always been the distinctive privilege of freemen. Aside from any necessity of self-protection to the person, it represents among all nations power coupled with the exercise of a certain jurisdiction. . . . It was not necessary that the right to bear arms should be granted in the Constitution, for it had always existed.”
Justice Scalia distinguished the United States v. Miller (1939) ruling this way: “It is particularly wrongheaded to read Miller for more than what it said, because the case did not even purport to be a thorough examination of the Second Amendment…. Miller stands only for the proposition that the Second Amendment right, whatever its nature, extends only to certain types of weapons.”
“We turn finally to the law at issue here. As we have said, the law totally bans handgun possession in the home. It also requires that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock at all times, rendering it inoperable. As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. 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. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home “the most preferred firearm in the nation to keep and use for protection of one’s home and family,” would fail constitutional muster.
We know of no other enumerated constitutional right whose core protection has been subjected to a freestanding “interest-balancing” approach. The very enumeration of the right takes out of the hands of government – even the Third Branch of Government (the federal courts) – the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon. A constitutional guarantee subject to future judges’ assessments of its usefulness is no constitutional guarantee at all. Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad. We would not apply an “interest-balancing” approach to the prohibition of a peaceful neo-Nazi march through Skokie. The First Amendment contains the freedom-of-speech guarantee that the people ratified, which included exceptions for obscenity, libel, and disclosure of state secrets, but not for the expression of extremely unpopular and wrong-headed views. The Second Amendment is no different. Like the First, it is the very product of an interest-balancing by the people.
Since this case represents this Court’s first in-depth examination of the Second Amendment, one should not expect it to clarify the entire field. But whatever else it leaves to future evaluation, it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.
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. Assuming that Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of Second Amendment rights, the District must permit him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home. […]”
Justice Scalia spent 45 pages of the majority opinion addressing the history, and especially the original meaning and the intent of the Second Amendment (summed by appropriate excerpts above). He distinguished the United States v. Miller (1939) case by pointing out that the Court didn’t even attempt to do a thorough examination of the Second Amendment, and then announced that the clear purpose of the Second Amendment was, and IS, to guarantee an individual right to Keep and Bear Arms for self-defense. Finally, he concluded by announcing that, because the DC Gun Ban denies Dick Heller and other DC residents of this right, it is unconstitutional.
The Heller decision would be the first time in American history that a gun control law was found to violate the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
CONCLUSION (and POST-HELLER GUN RIGHTS)
We say the Heller opinion was an “ORIGINALIST” opinion because the analysis of the Second Amendment was based purely on an examination of history, with an emphasis on what the words and intent of the “Right to Keep and Bear Arms” meant at the time it was adopted by the American colonies and then when they became states and then finally when they incorporated into the federal Union with the Constitution.
Indeed, District of Columbia v. Heller is the most significant case which applied “originalism” in analyzing the Constitution, and together with the companion case, McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), addressed below, are the most significant Second Amendment cases to date. We can expect another similarly significant case this fall – New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York. The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association is the NY state chapter of the NRA.
Originalism is a concept regarding the interpretation of the Constitution that asserts that all terms and provisions in the Constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding of the authors or the people at the time it was ratified. Justice Scalia was the most famous proponent of Originalism.
In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the companion case to Heller – McDonald v. City of Chicago. Heller announced what our Second Amendment rights are with respect to action by the federal government. With McDonald, the Supreme Court announced what our Second Amendment rights are with respect to action by the States. The case involved a state gun control law, as opposed to a federal gun control law. The case arose in 2008, when Otis McDonald, a retired African American custodian living in a neighborhood fraught with robberies, shootings, and other crimes, and others filed suit to challenge provisions of a 1982 Chicago law that, among other things, generally banned the new registration of handguns and made registration a prerequisite of possession of a firearm. McDonald alleged that the law violated his right to possess and carry weapons, which the Supreme Court had found to be protected by the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller. In reaching a ruling in McDonald’s favor, the Court held that the Second Amendment is one of the liberty rights to be incorporated on the states thru the 14th Amendment, and therefore states cannot pass laws to violate or burden that right.
Together, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago cases articulate the view that the Second Amendment recognizes and protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. The cases reach that conclusion after an in-depth and judicious review of the history and roots of the amendment.
However, and unfortunately, the cases have not seemed to stop the passage of gun-control laws or talk of more and more federal gun-control laws. Besides the general ignorance of many of our federal legislators and our state legislators, and the ever-important goal of disarming citizens to prevent their violence upon one another (always the risk in a free society), there are some limitations with the ruling and clearly ways government can get around it (or frustrate the exercise of the right protected in the Second Amendment:
(1) First of all, Dick Heller found no relief, even after spending 7 years litigating his challenge and winning perhaps one of the most significant cases in the Supreme Court. The ruling was not quite the sweeping gun-freedom victory he expected and it certainly didn’t go far enough to abolish burdensome gun permitting regulations, especially in his home of DC. Despite his court victory, he still was unable to acquire a gun permit. In the weeks since the Heller decision, the city hastily enacted a new and lengthy set of regulations and so when Heller went to the station with his revolver, he was told that he didn’t bring the many documents that the district had decided were required to register a handgun. He could take his revolver back home, he was told, but he would still have to keep it trigger-locked and unloaded. Not much had changed.
(2) Both the Heller and McDonald rulings addressed the right to keep and bear arms in one’s home. The lawsuit did not address whether the Second Amendment guarantees any right beyond that and hence the courts did not rule so. In October (of this year, 2019), the Supreme Court will hear a case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, which addresses this very question.
(3) Related to the question of whether the Second Amendment extends to gun rights outside one’s home, the Heller and McDonald rulings also leave open the question of whether conceal carry is covered.
(4) Scalia’s majority opinion in the Heller case included this proviso: “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt” on longstanding regulations such as restrictions on felons “or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” In his opinion, he wrote: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Apparently, Scalia was carving out areas where he believed Congress could rightfully legislate with respect to the Second Amendment. According to Robert Levy, who financed the lawsuit: “Everybody understood — or at least any reasonable person understood — that we can’t have 11-year-olds with machine guns in front of the White House when the president is delivering a speech. Some weapons can be regulated, some people can be regulated, like minors and felons and mentally incompetent people, and some circumstances can be regulated. Battles over defining those circumstances will be going on for a long time.” Why can minors be regulated with regard to firearms for self-defense? The probable answer is because they are mature enough and their brains have not developed to the point where they can intelligently and rationally predict or comprehend the consequences of their actions. Why can felons and mentally incompetent people be regulated? Liberty is understood as the free exercise of one’s inalienable and essential rights, to the point that such exercise doesn’t burden or violate another person’s equal rights. Felons have already proven that they are incapable of conforming their conduct to be consistent with the rights of others and hence our society deems that a rightful punishment is to deny them access to firearms. They cannot be trusted. Incompetent individuals in many cases can’t control their actions, thoughts, re-actions. They also cannot responsibly conform their conduct so as not to harm or invade the liberties of others. They are often unpredictable.
(5) In the Court’s eyes, which part of the Second Amendment will control what types of “arms” are covered? Will the courts use the prefatory clause (the militia) or the operative clause (individual right)?
(6) Members of the US Congress clearly have not read the Second Amendment, the Preamble to the Bill of Rights, or the Heller and McDonald opinions. They continue to push for more and more gun control and policies to permit government confiscation of firearms (Red Flag Laws). Ever since Andrew Jackson and then Abraham Lincoln, US presidents have argued that the office can assume undelegated powers (ie, unconstitutional powers) as long as the country or the American people need it to be so. In other words, they implicitly view the Constitution as either a “living, breathing document” or they have treated it as a dead document, something that presidents can choose to guide them but certainly not to confine them. The US Congress has, over the same time, done the very same thing and the courts have very often put a rubber stamp on their power grabs. It appears that Congress and the states will continue to violate the Second Amendment by claiming that they need to keep people, schools, federal buildings, churches, etc safe. If their laws are unconstitutional (note that each state has their own Bill of Rights, including a Second Amendment version, in their constitutions), they will simply amend the laws or pass new ones which may also be unconstitutional, but in the meantime will burden gun access and ownership, and will restrict carry.
In July 2008, less than a month after the Heller opinion was handed down and just after he still was unable to get a permit for his revolver, Dick Heller filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia. (Heller v. District of Columbia II, or “Heller II”) challenging the new regulations DC lawmakers quickly put in place to save their gun law.
The case has been far more time-consuming than Heller expected. After parting ways with Gura and Levy, Heller enlisted Stephen Halbrook as his lawyer, the Second Amendment attorney that the NRA hired to try to block the initial Heller lawsuit. Again, after 7 years of litigation (punctuated by repeated changes by DC council’s to its gun regulations), Halbrook managed to win a ruling by a DC Circuit of Appeals panel in September 2015 invalidating 4 of the 10 restrictions Heller challenged. In 2016, the full DC Appeals Court agreed with the ruling. Halbrook and Heller have not signaled if they will seek Supreme Court review. [Mark Obbie, “He Won the Supreme Court Case That Transformed Gun Rights. But Dick Heller Is a Hard Man to Please”]
The provisions Heller II successfully invalidated include a requirement to renew gun permits every three years, a limit of one handgun registration per month, and requirements for permit holders to pass a test on D.C. gun laws and show up at police headquarters with the gun to be registered. Left intact, however, were the District’s registration requirement for long guns, a required safety class and registration fees for permit holders, and other obstacles to the sort of frictionless, gun-friendly city Heller wants D.C. to be. In October 2015 in an interview published in the magazine America’s 1st Freedom, the NRA’s official magazine. He said: “We still have to be registered and fingerprinted, so the worst part is we will still be treated like criminals, but the criminals won’t be standing in line to get in.” [Ibid]
Heller, who is now 76 years old, has been frustrated that he had to waste 14 years of his life just to have the rights Americans won and secured a long time ago vindicated in an American court. He assumed that officials who take an oath of office would be on the same side of the American people.
Later in 2008, after the Supreme Court handed down the Heller ruling, Dick Heller created the Heller Foundation. He then paired with the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation in order to promote “a world where arms and self-defense rights are considered as essential to human life as food and water.” In such a capacity, on November 2, he signed on to an amicus brief filed by Larry Pratt and the organization he founded, Gun Owners of America, in a lawsuit that challenged the federal machine gun ban (passed as part of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act). [Hollis v. Lynch]. Gun Owners of America argued that that possession of machine guns by Americans is compatible with the Second Amendment and that the amendment is not about not about hunting or target shooting, but about self-defense against individuals and/or the state. The amicus brief characterized machine guns as “the lineal descendants of founding-era firearms” fulfilling the ultimate purpose of the Second Amendment, “to allow the people to take up effective arms against a tyrant.” On June 30, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued its unanimous opinion upholding the federal machine-gun ban.
What can we expect in the post-Heller and post-McDonald era with respect to gun rights? I think Robert Levy said it best: “Some weapons can be regulated, some people can be regulated, and some circumstances can be regulated. Battles over defining those circumstances will be going on for a long time.”