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District of Columbia v. Heller

Matthew Steinberg

InstructorMatthew Steinberg

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

District of Columbia v. Heller

Citation. 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The District of Columbia has a ban on handguns, and in addition prohibits them from being in the home unless they are disabled.  Respondent Heller brings an action claiming that this complete ban violates the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

the 2nd Amendment extends a right to all individuals to keep firearms, and although the 2nd Amendment is not absolute, a complete ban on a class of weapons (handguns), even for a lawful purpose, violates the constitution.


The District of Columbia prohibits the possession of handguns, and no person may carry a handgun without a license.  However, the Chief of Police may issue licenses for 1-year periods.  In addition, residents are required to keep such firearms “unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device” unless they are located in a place of business or are being used for a lawful recreational activity.

Respondent Dick Heller is a special police officer authorized to carry a handgun while on duty, and applied for a registration for a handgun he wanted to keep at home.  The district denied such a registration.  He filed suit in the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia seeking to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on the registration of handguns, the licensing requirement insofar as it violated the Second Amendment.


Does the District of Columbia’s prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home violate the 2nd Amendment?


A complete ban on handgun possession in the home violates the 2nd Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home inoperable for the purpose of immediate self defense.


(Stevens) The dissent feels that the 2nd Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people to maintain a militia, and thus there is no right to use arms for non military purposes such as hunting and self defense. The dissent feels that the text of the Amendment, as well as history, contrary to what the  majority opinion feels, is protecting the right of a militia to bear arms, and not all citizens. Specifically, “the amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia”

(Breyer): Justice Breyer feels that the majority is wrong for two reasons, the first being that the second amendment only protects militia-related, not self defense related- interests. In addition, this protection is not absolute, and permits the government to regulate the interests that it serves. Thus, any regulation has to be unreasonable or inappropriate. Justice Breyer concludes that the District’s regulation is a permissible legislative response to a serious problem, and comes to this conclusion based on an interest-balancing approach.


(Scalia): The 2nd Amendment provides for “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.”  Despite the fact that some would argue that this means “the people” is a very broad term, the court states that when the Constitution refers to the “right of the people” this means individual rights, not “collective” rights, and the court feels that this is unambiguous. In addition, to keep or bear arms literally means to hold in one’s possession. Therefore the court takes a very literal, dictionary definition meaning to the amendment and states that the amendment thus means that each individual person has a right to bear a weapon.

In addition, looking at history, the court argues that the purpose was to enable the people to create a militia, since that the “way tryants had eliminated a militia consisted of all the able-bodied men was not by manning the militia but by taking away the people’s arms” and thus enabling the standing army to suppress political opponents. The court states that because this occurred in England, and that this is what the founder’s sought to prevent, that interpreting the 2nd Amendment to mean that the right to bear arms only applies to the military is inconsistent with history.

The court recognizes that the right to bear arms is not absolute, that some restrictions may be placed and that “the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose” meaning there can be some regulations on bearing arms, such as banning felons from owning weapons, the mentally ill, and having registration requirements.  However, since this law totally bans handguns in the home, that is not in keeping with the 2nd amendment since it leaves no option open to bear arms. The court examples by stating that “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 chose by an American society for that lawful purpose.”

Lastly, the court feels that Justice Breyer’s desire to use an “interest-balancing” approach is not in keeping with other constitutional scrutinies.

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