116 U.S. 252 (1886), argued 23–24 Nov. 1885, decided 4 Jan. 1886 by vote of 9 to 0; Woods for the Court. In Presser v. Illinois, the Court sustained an Illinois state statute prohibiting parading with arms by groups other than the organized militia. Herman Presser, who had been convicted of leading armed members of a fraternal organization in a parade, challenged the statute on the grounds that it violated the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court's opinion, written by Justice William B. Woods, rejected Presser's claims holding that the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms only applied to the federal government.
Although the opinion in Presser is often discussed within the context of the Second Amendment debate, it is probably better viewed as an example of the Court's initial tendency to reject the view that the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states. The Woods opinion noted that the Illinois statute did not interfere with the right to keep and bear arms and that state governments could not disarm their populations because that would interfere with the federal government's ability to raise a militia from the population at large. Despite this the opinion stressed that the Second Amendment only limited action by the federal government.
The modern validity of the holding Presser is unclear in light of the Court's application of most provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment in the twentieth century. It has been relied on by lower federal courts but has not been revisited by the Supreme Court, which has generally not looked at Second Amendment claims in recent times.
Robert J. Cottrol