Supreme Court: Individuals Have Right to Bear Arms

Q&A: D.C. Gun Ban Overturned; What's Next?

The Supreme Court ruling doesn't mean that anyone can now buy and own a handgun in Washington, D.C. Those who want a gun will still need to obtain a license. Read what else to expect as a result of the court's decision.

U.S. Gun Laws: A History

The Supreme Court's decision on the right to bear arms is the latest milestone in the long history of U.S. gun legislation. Read our selected timeline of key laws.

Interpreting the Second Amendment

The decision to overturn the District of Columbia's 32-year-old ban on handguns is the Surpeme Court's first conclusive interpretation of the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791.

 

 

 

Police Chief Cathy Lanier and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty speak to reporters. i i

hide captionMetropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier (left) and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty face reporters March 18 after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the district's handgun ban.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Police Chief Cathy Lanier and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty speak to reporters.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier (left) and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty face reporters March 18 after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the district's handgun ban.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In a dramatic moment on the last day of this term, the Supreme Court declared for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to self-defense and gun ownership.

For most of the last century, the interpretation of the Second Amendment has been that the right to bear arms is a collective right, such as with military service; Thursday's ruling says gun ownership is also an individual right.

The 5-4 ruling grows out of a Washington, D.C., case in which a security guard sued the district for prohibiting him from keeping his handgun at home. In the District of Columbia, it is a crime to carry an unregistered firearm, and the registration of handguns is prohibited. The rules are so strict, they essentially regulate handguns out of existence. The regulations were intended to curb gun violence in the capital city.

The ruling struck down the ban on constitutional grounds, saying it flew in the face of the constitutional right to bear arms.

An Individual Right

The precise meaning 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" — has long been a subject for debate. In a decision nearly 70 years ago, the justices suggested it was a collective right, not an individual right to bear arms. This is the first time the court has defined the amendment so definitively.

The two sides in this case viewed the Founding Fathers' intentions very differently. The majority of the justices said the amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that firearm for lawful purposes, such as self-defense in the home. The dissenting justices said the amendment protects only the right to possess and carry a firearm in connection with militia service.

"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapons whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. But it did allow for individuals to have guns for lawful purposes, such as hunting and defending themselves, he said. The majority clearly saw the individual right to own a gun.

Other Restrictions Remain

The ruling will leave intact many of the restrictions in place at the federal and state level, such as bans on a felon's right to keep a gun, and bans on assault weapons and sawed-off shotguns.

But Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissent, said that the ruling leaves it to future courts to define the actual details of the right to bear arms. This should be the business of state legislatures, he said, and the court should stay out of it. Law-abiding citizens will be permitted to keep guns at home, but that doesn't address how state legislatures might want to regulate or curb gun ownership.

The court also struck down Washington's requirement that firearms be equipped with trigger locks.

In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said, "In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas."

Mixed Reactions

The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, released a statement applauding the decision.

"Today's ruling makes clear that other municipalities like Chicago that have banned handguns have infringed on the constitutional rights of Americans," he said. He also took a thinly veiled shot at the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

"Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today's ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly."

Obama signaled his approval of the ruling in a statement Thursday.

"Today's ruling, the first clear statement on this issue in 127 years, will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country," he said, adding that "what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne," but the decision reinforced that "if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe."

Gun rights supporters hailed the decision. "I consider this the opening salvo in a step-by-step process of providing relief for law-abiding Americans everywhere that have been deprived of this freedom," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA said it will file lawsuits in San Francisco, Chicago and several of its suburbs challenging handgun restrictions there based on Thursday's outcome.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a leading gun control advocate in Congress, criticized the ruling: "I believe the people of this great country will be less safe because of it," she said.

D.C.'s Law

The capital's gun law was among the nation's strictest.

Dick Anthony Heller, 66, an armed security guard, sued the district after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his home for protection in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood as the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in Heller's favor and struck down Washington's handgun ban, saying the Constitution guarantees Americans the right to own guns and that a total prohibition on handguns is not compatible with that right.

The issue caused a split within the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney supported the appeals court ruling, but others in the administration feared it could lead to the undoing of other gun regulations, including a federal law restricting sales of machine guns. Other laws keep felons from buying guns and provide for an instant background check.

Scalia said nothing in Thursday's ruling should "cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings."

The law adopted by Washington's city council in 1976 bars residents from owning handguns unless they had one before the law took effect. Shotguns and rifles may be kept in homes if they are registered, kept unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with trigger locks.

Opponents of the law have said it prevents residents from defending themselves. The district says no one would be prosecuted for a gun law violation in cases of self-defense.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Q&A: D.C. Gun Ban Overturned; What's Next?

The Supreme Court's ruling that the District of Columbia can't ban its residents from owning handguns has advocates on both sides of the gun-control issue scrambling to reshape their strategies. The 5-4 decision is the court's first ruling on gun ownership since 1939.

For insight on the case, we spoke to professor Robert Weisberg of Stanford Law School in California. A former Supreme Court clerk, Weisberg now heads the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

What is your initial reaction to the court's decision to declare the District of Columbia's handgun ban unconstitutional?

I think the Supreme Court just created new job opportunities for constitutional law attorneys. But this ruling may be much narrower than it appears. The D.C. gun law was the most draconian in the country.

It was this extreme statute, saying that otherwise qualified people — an average innocent citizen who could pass a background check — under the D.C. ordinance, she would violate the law by keeping a handgun in her home.

That's a very draconian ban.

It was extreme enough that it was as if it were written by the NRA, to force the court to come out and say, "Oh my God, that's just going too far."

And yet, this case wasn't filed by an average citizen, but by a security guard, Dick Anthony Heller, who lives in a high-crime area.

He is an extremely sympathetic plaintiff — seemingly as qualified a gun owner as you can have. He was somebody who just barely fell outside the line of a police officer.

It was the perfect case to force the Supreme Court to say that maybe a legislature can go too far in restricting gun ownership. It was bound to happen.

But it's very hard to say whether this opinion would invalidate other less extreme laws.

The court's majority was explicit in limiting the reach of its opinion. It said it in no way limits legislatures from prohibiting gun possession by felons or severely mentally ill individuals, for example.

And a license requirement that is reasonable may be OK. The court doesn't say exactly what "reasonable" is. The ruling settled the big symbolic issue, but didn't settle most of the practical issues.

The court's ruling declares that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban is not enforceable in its current state. Does that mean anyone can now buy and own a gun there?

Well, they still have to get licenses. The license requirement wasn't struck down. In theory, people can now go and ask for licenses. And they can't be turned down, unless the rejection is based on some reasonable criteria.

So, the city is likely to start implementing some criteria right away.

But it would not be legal for someone to just go out and buy and possess a handgun today, without at least going through the motions of getting a license, to give the district a chance to implement some criteria under the licensing law.

It's this funny thing, because right now, the licensing may be a formality, because there are no criteria. And the case seems to say that today, Mr. Heller should be able to walk into the licensing office and get a license.

So, in a certain sense, retaining the licensing is an empty formality. But presumably it won't be an empty formality, because the district will figure out some criteria it wants to apply.

The court had two dissenting opinions on the case, one by Justice Stephen Breyer and one by Justice John Paul Stevens. Do they give any indication of what might happen in future gun-control cases?

They're sort of complementary. The Stevens dissent is the general one. On historical grounds, it basically disagrees with the majority on whether the right to bear arms is collective or individual. Stevens' opinion says that history shows that the only real meaning of the right to bear arms was a kind of states' rights power to organize militias, not an individual right.

The Breyer dissent takes the majority to task on the level of scrutiny. Breyer is telling the majority, "You can't just declare a general individual right to bear arms, and then say that this statute falls."

Since the majority doesn't say that the right to bear arms is absolute, Breyer is saying to them, "You have to tell us by what criteria we determine when a gun ban is reasonable or not. You don't tell us that, and you never really examine this particular statute in any detail to see if it's reasonable or not."

So, Breyer is prompting a wider review of U.S. gun law?

Right, this is sort of a suggestion for future cases. He says the proper way to look at this is by an "interest-balancing" test.

If a jurisdiction can offer the courts an important and convincing enough policy reason for a certain gun restriction —particularly if, as in D.C., there may be an unusual exigency about violent crime, the courts might be obliged to uphold the law, in light of those special, local interests.

But he complains that the court was in such a rush to make its general declaration that it didn't take the district's specific arguments about the need for this particular gun ban seriously enough.

So, even though it's a dissent, it may be a clear signal to future courts about how to interpret the majority.

Would that also give other jurisdictions a signpost, a hint of how to write their own gun bans?

It might. But at the same time, the Scalia majority says it doesn't really like Breyer's standard, this "interest-balancing" thing. It thinks that that's too vague.

But I don't think you can really tell from the majority opinion what standard will be applied down the road, to more typical gun laws. I think the most important thing to note is the extreme nature of the D.C. gun statute.

And courts are going to have to not only decide how different other statutes are from this one; they're also going to have to evolve some criteria for evaluating those differences. And we just don't know yet.

The District of Columbia is not the only place trying to restrict handguns. What do you see happening in other cities and states?

Clearly, various plaintiffs and groups are now going to challenge lots of gun laws around the country. At the same time, lots of jurisdictions are going to defend their gun laws by laying out arguments about the special need that would support a particular ban in a particular place.

Washington's law was an absolute ban on handguns. I'm unaware of anything that extreme. It's the combination of, "you can't own a handgun at all," and for other, larger, guns, "you have to have them unloaded and trigger-locked, except in places of business."

There's a little uncertainty, though. The court left open the possibility that the trigger lock and unloading rule might be acceptable as a general matter, if exceptions were made where there was an argument for self-defense — for instance, someone who has been threatened, or who lives in a neighborhood where there have been violent break-ins.

The law could possibly be interpreted as having an exception to the trigger lock and unloading rule for those circumstances. The statute wasn't interpreted that way; it was treated as if there was no exception possible. So we don't know if a law with those restrictions that also allowed for certain exceptions for self-defense might be permissible.

What about the states that already have laws in place?

I think gun laws that are only slightly less restrictive than D.C.'s may be in trouble.

Technically speaking, all this can say is that this particular law is unconstitutional. And any law lacking any of the important draconian features of the D.C. law could conceivably be legitimate. But we just don't know yet.

— From a conversation that was condensed and edited.

High Court's First Major Look at Second Amendment

The Supreme Court's decision Thursday to overturn the District of Columbia's 32-year-old ban on handguns is the high court's first conclusive interpretation of the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791.

The 5-4 ruling strikes down the District's ban on handguns — one of the strictest in the nation — as incongruent with the Second Amendment.

At issue was whether the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own guns no matter what, or if that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia.

The 1976 law adopted by the D.C. barred residents from owning handguns unless they had one before the law took effect. Under the law, shotguns and rifles may be kept in homes, but they must be registered, kept unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with trigger locks.

The District argues handguns are responsible for more than 80 percent of the city's homicides and most armed assaults. It also cites the danger handguns pose to children and to police called into domestic violence situations.

Prior to Thursday's decision, anti-gun groups said they expected the ban to be overturned, but that background checks, limits on large-volume gun sales and prohibitions on certain categories of weapons would survive.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on the right to bear arms was in 1939. At the time, the justices upheld a federal ban on sawed-off shotguns. They implied that the Founding Fathers adopted the amendment to ensure the then-new federal government could not disarm state militias.

In Thursday's ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for four colleagues, said the Constitution does not permit "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home." He added, however, that nothing in Thursday's ruling should "cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings."

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority of justices "would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons." Stevens said such evidence "is nowhere to be found."

The Supreme Court ruling upheld a 2007 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

From NPR reports and the Associated Press

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