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District of Columbia v. Heller

Citation. 554 U.S. 570 (2008)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Respondent challenged the District of Columbia’s prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home for the violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms.


The District of Columbia generally prohibits the possession of handguns. It is a crime to carry an unregistered firearm, and the registration of handguns is prohibited. District of Columbia also requires residents to keep their lawfully owned 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 lawful recreational activities. Respondent Heller is a special police officer authorized to carry a handgun while on duty. He applied for a registration certificate for a handgun that he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He sued to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on the registration of handguns.


Does the District of Columbia’s prohibition on the possession of usable handguns in the home violate the Second Amendment to the Constitution?


Yes, the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against making any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense. Assuming that Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of Second Amendment rights, the District must allow him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.


Justice Stevens and Breyer

Stevens: The Second Amendment protects only one right, rather than two. It does not describe a right to keep arms and a separate right to bear arms. Instead, the single right that it does describe is both a duty and a right to have arms available and ready for military service, and to use them for military purposes when necessary. Different language would have been used to protect nonmilitary use and possession of weapons from regulation if such an intent had played any role in the drafting of the Amendment.

Breyer: It is unclear which loaded arms a homeowner may keep. The majority says that that Amendment protects those weapons typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes. This definition excludes machine guns, but permits handguns, which the majority describes as the most popular weapons chosen by Americans for self-defense in their home. This approach does not make sense. The majority determines what regulations are permissible by looking to see what existing regulations permit, but there is no basis for believing that the Framers intended such circular reasoning.


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 chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for self-defense of self, family, and property is most acute. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home the most preferred firearm in the nation to keep and use for protection of one’s home and family, would fail constitutional muster. The District’s requirement that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is thus unconstitutional.

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