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

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff challenged a D.C. law limiting handgun possession.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The right to possess firearms unconnected with militia service and use of the firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, like home protection, is constitutionally lawful under the Second Amendment.


D.C. generally prohibited handgun possession. It required residents to keep their lawfully-owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device unless located in a place of business or are being used for lawful recreation activities. Plaintiff applied for a registration certificate for a handgun in D.C. to keep at home. He was denied.


Whether the D.C. law is constitutional under the Second Amendment.


No. The D.C. law is not constitutional under the Second Amendment.


Justice Stevens

The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people to maintain a militia. There is no indication that the Framers intended to enshrine the common law right to self-defense in the Constitution. The Court’s announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms for private purposes upsets settled understanding, and leaves for future cases the formidable ask of defining the scope of permissible regulations.

Justice Breyer

Historical evidence demonstrates that a self-defense assumption is the beginning, rather than end of any constitutional inquiry. I would simply adopt an interest-balancing inquiry and explicitly ask whether the statute burden a protected interest and take into account the statute’s effects on competing interest.

I cannot understand how one can take from the elected branches of government the right to decide whether to insist upon a handgun-free urban populace in a city now facing a serious crime problem.


The Second Amendment extends to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those not in existence at the time of founding. “Keep arms” was simply a common way of referring to possessing arms, for militiamen and everyone else.

The first clause of the Second Amendment referencing “militia” is a prefatory clause, meaning it does not limit the operative clause of the Amendment. As such, the right to bear arms is not limited to military forces. Rather, it was meant to protect individuals. Under its plain meaning, the operative clause should be read to guarantee an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. This means a law that bans an entire class of arms, like the law at issue in this case, violates the Second Amendment.

Personal handguns are commonly used for protection purposes. The D.C. law extends to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute. Under any standards of scrutiny we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, it would fail. Judgement affirmed.

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