District of Columbia v. Heller

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District of Columbia v. Heller  (2008) 

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States involving the constitutionality of a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. The Court held that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's 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. United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.

Court Documents
Dissenting Opinions

Supreme Court of the United States

554 U.S. 570

District of Columbia et al.  v.  Heller

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

No. 07-290  Argued: March 18, 2008 --- Decided: June 26, 2008

District of Columbia law bans handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns; provides separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorizes the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and requires residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms in the home. The District Court dismissed the suit, but the D. C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess firearms and that the city's total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when necessary for self-defense, violated that right.


1. The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. Pp. 576-626.
(a) The Amendment's prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause's text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. Pp. 576-595.
(b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court's interpretation of the operative clause. The "militia" comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens' militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. Pp. 595-600. [p. 571]
(c) The Court's interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 600-603.
(d) The Second Amendment's drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms. Pp. 603-605.
(e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century also supports the Court's conclusion. Pp. 605-619.
(f) None of the Court's precedents forecloses the Court's interpretation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 619-626.
2. Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court's opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller 's holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those "in common use at the time" finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 626-628.
3. The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District's total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of "arms" that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfy his prayer for relief and [p. 572] does not address the licensing requirement. Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home. Pp. 628-636.

478 F.3d 370, affirmed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 636. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 681.

Walter Dellinger argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Peter J. Nickles, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Linda Singer, former Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Alan B. Morrison, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, Lutz Alexander Prager, Robert A. Long, Jr., Jonathan L. Marcus, Thomas C. Goldstein, Matthew M. Shors, and Mark S. Davies.

Alan Gura argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Robert A. Levy and Clark M. Neily III.

Former Solicitor General Clement argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Garre, Assistant Attorney General Fisher, Acting Assistant Attor­ney General Bucholtz, Malcolm L. Stewart, and Stephen R. Rubenstein.[1]


  1. . Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the City of Chi­cago et al. by Andrew L. Frey, David M. Gossett, Benna Ruth Solomon, Patrick J. Rocks, and Lee Ann Lowder; for the American Academy of Pediatrics et al. by Bert H. Deixler and Lary Alan Rappaport; for the American Bar Association by William H. Neukom, Robert N. Weiner, and John A. Freedman; for the American Jewish Committee et al. by Jeffrey A. Lamken, Allyson N. Ho, D. Randall Benn, Jeffrey L. Kessler, William C. Heuer, Robert E. Cortes, and Sayre Weaver; for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence et al. by John Payton, Jonathan G. Cedarbaum, Dennis A. Henigan, Brian J. Siebel, and Jonathan E. Lowy; for the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice et al. by Jonathan S. Franklin; for District Attorneys by Alexis S. Coll-Very, Simona G. Strauss, the Honor­able Robert M. Morgenthau, Mark Dwyer, the Honorable Charles J. Hynes, and Laurie L. Levenson; for Former Department of Justice Offi­cials by Messrs. Long and Marcus; for Major American Cities et al. by Jeffrey L. Bleich, George A. Nilson, William R. Phelan, Jr., Debra Lynn Gonzales, Michael A. Cardozo, Leonard J. Koerner, Richard Feder, Den­nis J. Herrera, Danny Chou, and John Daniel Reaves; for Members of Congress by Scott E. Gant and Christopher L. Hayes; for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., by Theodore M. Shaw, Jacque­line A. Berrien, Victor A. Bolden, Debo P. Adegbile, Michael B. de Leeuw, and Darcy M. Goddard; for the National Network to End Domestic Vio­lence et al. by Bruce D. Sokler; for Professors of Criminal Justice by Al­bert W. Wallis; for Professors of Linguistics and English by Charles M. Dyke, Charles M. English, Jeffrey R. Gans, Elizabeth M. Walsh, and Frederick L. Whitmer; for the Violence Policy Center et al. by Daniel G. Jarcho; and for Jack N. Rakove et al. by Carl T. Bogus.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of New York et al. by Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General of New York, Barbara D. Underwood, Solicitor General, Michelle Aronowitz, Deputy Solicitor General, Sasha Samberg-Champion, Assistant Solicitor General, by Ro­berto J. Sánchez-Ramos, Secretary of Justice of Puerto Rico, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Mark J. Bennett of Hawaii, Douglas F. Gansler of Maryland, Martha Coakley of Massachu­setts, and Anne Milgram of New Jersey; for the State of Texas et al. by Greg Abbott, Attorney General of Texas, R. Ted Cruz, Solicitor General, Kent C. Sullivan, First Assistant Attorney General, David S. Morales, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Litigation, Sean D. Jordan, Deputy Solicitor General, Michael P. Murphy, Assistant Solicitor General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Troy King of Alabama, Talis J. Colberg of Alaska, Dustin McDaniel of Arkansas, John W. Suthers of Colorado, Bill McCollum of Florida, Thurbert E. Baker of Georgia, Lawrence G. Wasden of Idaho, Steve Carter of Indiana, Stephen N. Six of Kansas, Jack Conway of Kentucky, James D. Caldwell of Louisi­ana, Michael A. Cox of Michigan, Lori Swanson of Minnesota, Jim Hood of Mississippi, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon of Missouri, Mike McGrath of Montana, Jon Bruning of Nebraska, Kelly A. Ayotte of New Hampshire, Gary K. King of New Mexico, Wayne Stenehjem of North Dakota, Marc Dann of Ohio, W. A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Thomas W. Corbett, Jr., of Pennsylvania, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Lawrence E. Long of South Dakota, Mark L. Shurtleff of Utah, Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia, Robert M. McKenna of Washington, Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., of West Virginia, and Bruce A. Salzburg of Wyoming; for the State of Wisconsin by J. B. Van Hollen, Attorney General of Wisconsin, and Chris­topher G. Wren and Steven P. Means, Assistant Attorneys General; for Academics et al. by Richard E. Gardiner; for Academics for the Second Amendment by David T. Hardy, Joseph Edward Olson, Daniel D. Polsby, Henry C. Karlson, Randy E. Barnett, and Michael Ian Krauss; for the Alaska Outdoor Council et al. by Jack Brian McGee; for the American Center for Law and Justice by Jay Alan Sekulow, Stuart J. Roth, Colby M. May, and James M. Henderson, Sr.; for the American Civil Rights Union by Peter J. Ferrara; for the American Legislative Exchange by Robert Dowlut; for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Inc., by Andrew L. Schlafly; for the Cato Institute et al. by C. Kevin Marshall; for the Center for Individual Freedom by Renee L. Giachino; for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms et al. by Jeffrey B. Teichert; for the Congress of Racial Equality by Stefan Bijan Tahmassebi; for Criminologists et al. by Marc James Ayers and Don B. Kates; for Disabled Veterans for Self-Defense et al. by James H. Warner; for the Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund by Douglas G. Smith; for the Foundation for Free Expression by Deborah J. Dewart and James L. Hirsen; for the Foundation for Moral Law by Gregory M. Jones and Benjamin D. DuPré; for the Goldwater Institute by Bradford A. Ber­enson, Ileana Maria Ciobanu, and Clint Bolick; for Grass Roots of South Carolina, Inc., by R. Jeffords Barham; for Gun Owners of America, Inc., et al. by Herbert W. Titus and William J. Olson; for the Heartland Insti­tute by Richard K. Willard; for the Institute for Justice by Erik S. Jaffe, William H. Mellor, and Steven M. Simpson; for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association et al. by David B. Kopel and C. D. Michel; for International Scholars by James R. Schaller; for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership by Daniel L. Schmutter; for the Libertarian National Committee, Inc., by Bob Barr; for the Mari­copa County Attorney's Office et al. by Daryl Manhart, Andrew P. Thomas, Arthur E. Mallory, Hy Forgeron, and Bryan A. Skoric; for the Mountain States Legal Foundation by William Perry Pendley; for the National Rifle Association et al. by Stephen D. Poss, Kevin P. Martin, and Scott B. Nardi; for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc., by Lawrence G. Keane, Christopher P. Johnson, and Kanchana Wangkeo Leung; for Ohio Concealed Carry Permitholders et al. by Jeanette M. Moll; for the Paragon Foundation, Inc., by Paul M. Kienzle III; for Pink Pistols et al. by Michael B. Minton; for Retired Military Officers by Andrew G. McBride; for the Rutherford Institute by John W. Whitehead; for the Second Amendment Foundation by Nelson Lund; for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, Inc., et al. by Shannon Lee Goessling; for State Fire­arm Associations by David J. Schenck; for Virginia1774.org by Richard E. Hill, Jr.; for Major General John D. Altenburg, Jr., et al. by C. Allen Foster, Robert P. Charrow, John D. Altenburg, Jr., and John P. Ein­wechter; for Dr. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, D. C., et al. by Kelly J. Shackelford; for the President Pro Tempore of the Senate of Pennsylvania Joseph B. Scarnati III by John P. Krill, Jr., and Linda J. Shorey; and for 55 Members of the United States Senate et al. by Stephen P. Halbrook.

Briefs of amici curiae were filed for the American Public Health Associ­ation et al. by Alison M. Tucher; for GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc., by John R. Monroe and Edward A. Stone; for Erwin Chemerinsky et al. by Mr. Chemerinsky, pro se; and for 126 Women State Legislators et al. by M. Carol Bambery.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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