District of Columbia v. Heller

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128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), argued 18 Mar. 2008, decided 26 June 2008 by vote of 5 to 4; Scalia for the Court; Stevens, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter, in dissent; Breyer, joined by Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter, also in dissent. The District of Columbia's gun control statute, the strictest in the nation, prohibited most residents from possessing handguns and required that all firearms be mechanically disabled at all times. Heller, the one plaintiff in this test case with standing to sue, carried a pistol while on duty as a security guard, but he was forbidden to keep a handgun in his home for self-protection.

The D.C. gun control regulations were struck down, marking the first time in history that the federal courts had invalidated a statute under the Second Amendment. This was also the first Supreme Court opinion to address the fundamental interpretive question of whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have weapons for private purposes such as self-defense, or only a right to keep and bear arms in connection with service in a governmentally regulated military organization. The Court adopted the individual-rights interpretation, based on a very lengthy analysis of the original meaning of the constitutional text. Deploying a competing set of textual and legislative history arguments, Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing for the military-service interpretation, which would have left the government free to disarm the entire civilian population.

The Court invalidated D.C.'s safe-storage rule because the constitutional right would be empty if it did not include at least a right to render a weapon operable for immediate self-defense in the home. The handgun ban was struck down because handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense. Justice Stephen G. Breyer's dissent insisted that D.C.'s strict gun control laws should be upheld—even assuming that there is some constitutional right to have weapons for self-defense because courts should defer to the superior expertise of legislators in balancing the public's interest in preventing violence against the individual's interest in self-protection. The majority opinion responded that this balancing of interests had already been performed by the Constitution itself.

Technically, this was a narrow decision. It applies only to federal laws, and the Court has not yet decided whether the Second Amendment applies to state laws under the modern doctrine of Fourteenth Amendment incorporation. The holding in the case, moreover, covers only the kind of extreme and unusual restrictions adopted in the D.C. statute. Scalia's opinion, however, also contains legally gratuitous endorsements of several common forms of gun control. A great deal of new litigation will be triggered by this case, some of which will test how far the Court is willing to go in preventing government from obstructing or restricting the constitutional right to keep and bear arms for self defense that Heller has recognized.

Nelson Lund

Subjects: Law.

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