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District of Columbia v. Heller

Citation. 554 U.S. 570, 128 S.Ct. 2783, 171 L.Ed.2d 637 (2008).
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Brief Fact Summary.

Heller’s application for a one-year license to keep a handgun at home was denied per relevant D.C. law. He brought suit, seeking injunction against enforcement of the law and alleging that the law violated his Second Amendment

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home.


Provisions of the District of Columbia Code (the Code) made it illegal to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibited the registration of handguns. However, the chief of police could issue one-year licenses for handguns. The Code also contained that required owners of lawfully registered firearms to keep them unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or other similar device unless the firearms were located in a place of business or being used for legal recreational activities. Heller was a D.C. special police officer who was authorized to carry a handgun while on duty. He applied for a one-year license for a handgun he wished to keep at home, but his application was denied. Heller sued the District of Columbia. He sought an injunction against the enforcement of the relevant parts of the Code and argued that they violated his Second Amendment right to keep a functional firearm in his home without a license.


Does D.C.’s prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home violate the Second Amendment?


Yes, D.C.’s prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home violates the Second Amendment.


Justice Stevens

The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people to maintain a militia, given that the text . There is no right to bear arms for nonmilitary purposes such as hunting and self-defense. The majority fails to identify any new evidence supporting the view that the Amendment was intended to limit the power of Congress to regulate civilian uses of weapons.

Justice Breyer

The Second Amendment only protects militia-related interests, not self-defense interests. In addition, this protection is not absolute. The government may regulate these interests. D.C.’s regulation is a permissible legislative response to a serious problem – namely, local urban crime linked to gun violence. The Court should adopt an interest-balancing inquiry in resolving this issue.


The Court held that the first clause of the Second Amendment that references a “militia” is a prefatory clause that does not limit the operative clause of the Amendment. Additionally, the term “militia” should not be confined to those serving in the military, because at the time the term referred to all able-bodied men who were capable of being called to such service. To read the Amendment as limiting the right to bear arms only to those in a governed military force would be to create exactly the type of state-sponsored force against which the Amendment was meant to protect people. Because the text of the Amendment should be read in the manner that gives greatest effect to the plain meaning it would have had at the time it was written, the operative clause should be read to “guarantee an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” This reading is also in line with legal writing of the time and subsequent scholarship. Thus, banning handguns, an entire class of arms that is commonly used for protection purposes, and prohibiting firearms from being kept functional in the home, the area traditionally in need of protection, violates the Second Amendment.

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