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District of Columbia v. Heller

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

The District of Columbia had various prohibitions that worked to prohibit most handgun possession.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms regardless of whether an exercise of the right is connected to militia service.


The District of Columbia had various prohibitions that worked to prohibit most handgun possession, including a prohibition on carrying unregistered firearms, a prohibition on registering handguns, and a requirement of keeping lawfully owned firearms unloaded or locked while they are kept at home.


Is the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms limited to the right to keep and bear arms in connection with militia service?


No, the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is not limited to the right to keep and bear arms in connection with militia service.


Justice Stevens

Justice Stevens argued that the Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several states to maintain a well-regulated militia, not to create a Constitutional right of self-defense. Justice Stevens conducted his own analysis of the phrases “the right of the people,” and “to keep and bear Arms,” to support his interpretation. He also argued that Miller turned on the difference between military and nonmilitary use and possession of guns, not on the difference between types of guns.

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer argued that the law at issue in this case did not disproportionately burden Second Amendment interests because the law it tailored to the life-threatening problems it attempts to address; the self-defense interest in keeping loaded handguns at home is at most a subsidiary interest of the Second Amendment; Samuel Adams thought that the Second Amendment was consistent with a local regulation that impeded individuals from using arms against intruders, and; the majority’s decision in this case will have negative consequences.

He also argued that the majority’s opinion limited the ability of democratically elected officials to handle gun-related issues, though those officials are better situated to do so than the Court is. Justice Breyer also emphasized that the Constitutional Framers could not have anticipated modern-day circumstances that make firearms more dangerous and available, and argued that the majority neglected to address this issue.


The Court engaged in a textual and historical analysis of the Second Amendment. According to the Court, the Second Amendment is divided into a prefatory clause and an operative clause. The operative clause establishes the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms . . . . ” According to Supreme Court, the phrase “right of the people” indicates that the Second Amendment right belongs to all Americans, not just a subset. The Supreme Court also found that the phrase “keep and bear Arms” did not historically imply a connection to military service. From these phrases, the Supreme Court concluded that the operative clause guarantees an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. The Supreme Court also found that the pre-Constitutional history of the right—which it argued was based on the British Crown’s disarming of of colonists—further supported the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the operative clause.

The Supreme Court then analyzed the prefatory clause, which read “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State . . . . ” The Supreme Court concluded that “militia” referred to able-bodied men, “well-regulated” referred to proper discipline and training, and that “security of a free State” referred to the security of a free country or polity, not the security of each of the several states.

According to the Supreme Court, under these interpretations of the prefatory and operative clauses, the prefatory clause can be read with the operative clause without contradicting the individual right to keep and bear arms that is established by the operative clause. The Supreme Court cited additional historical events, including southern states’ disarming of Black citizens after the Civil War, to support its holding. The Supreme Court also cited Miller, in which the Supreme Court upheld two convictions for transporting unregistered short-barreled shotguns in interstate commerce against a Second Amendment challenge. According to the Supreme Court, it was the type of weapon, not a non-military purpose, that was not protected by the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court went on to acknowledge that the Second Amendment right can be limited, but held that the law at issue here, by banning handgun possession in the home, was too broad to pass constitutional muster.

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