District of Columbia v. Heller United States Supreme Court 554 U.S. 570 (2008) Facts: Dick Heller (plaintiff), a Washington, D.C. special police officer, applied for a registration certificate from the city of Washington, D.C. for a handgun he wished to keep at home. A Washington, D.C. statute prohibited possessing a handgun in the home without a license, and it also required any lawful handgun kept in the home to be rendered inoperable through use of a trigger-lock. The District of Columbia (defendant) denied Heller’s application for a registration certificate based on its law. Heller then filed a lawsuit in federal district court for the District of Columbia arguing that the city’s bar on the registration of handguns, its prohibition on guns in the home without a license, and its requirement of trigger-locks for lawful guns in the home all violated the Second Amendment. The district court dismissed Heller’s complaint, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed on the grounds that the Second Amendment grants an individual the right to bear arms. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. Issue: Does a law prohibiting the possession of usable handguns in the home violate the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution? Rule of Law: Subject to certain safety limitations, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution creates an individual right to keep and bear arms apart from any military purpose. Holding: Yes Although the Second Amendment appears to have been created for the purpose of ensuring the creation of a future militia, this purpose ultimately does not change the fact that the Second Amendment was designed to create an individual right to keep and bear arms. Reasoning: Nothing suggests that the individual right to keep and bear arms is conditional on being for a strictly military purpose. However, states must be free to regulate who can possess firearms based on certain safety concerns (for example, states are free to deny handgun registration and possession to felons and the mentally ill). However, provided Heller does not fall within the categories of people prohibited from owning handguns due to safety concerns, the District of Columbia’s prohibition on handgun possession in the home, as well as its requirement that lawful handguns in the home be rendered inoperable for self-defense, is unconstitutional. Dissent – Breyer The District of Columbia’s law does not violate Heller’s Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms is not absolute. The District’s law should only be overturned if it is an unreasonable or inappropriate regulation of Heller’s Second Amendment rights. Even if the Second Amendment could be interpreted as protecting a selfdefense (and not militia-based) purpose for owning a handgun, the District of Columbia law does not unreasonably interfere with the right of self-defense because its purpose is to combat the presence of handguns in high-crime urban areas. In examining future similar laws designed to combat health and safety risks by limiting Second Amendment rights, courts should adopt a unique level of scrutiny. A better approach would be an “interest-balancing inquiry” whereby the court would seek to determine whether a particular statute burdens an interest protected by the Second Amendment in a way that is disproportionate to the statute’s effects on other important governmental interests. In applying this new level of scrutiny to the District of Columbia’s law, the law is a permissible, proportional legislative response to the serious problem of handguns and urban crime, and thus it furthers an important government interest in health and safety. Dissent – Stevens The majority does not adequately describe the scope of the individual right to keep and bear arms. The text of the Amendment itself, its history, and the Supreme Court’s prior decision in United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), provide an ample discussion of the bounds of the right that differ from the majority’s conclusion. In Miller, the Supreme Court held that it was unlawful for two men to possess a sawed-off shotgun because their reasons for doing so bore no relationship to the purpose of preserving a well-regulated militia. The Miller holding, as well as the historical context and debate surrounding the adoption of the Second Amendment, means that the individual right to keep and bear arms was designed to be solely for the purpose of preserving a well-regulated militia. Heller seeks to own a handgun for self-defense and not a militia-related purpose, therefore, the majority’s holding that his right to do so is constitutionally protected is incorrect.