District of Columbia v. Heller

District of Columbia v. Heller
United States Supreme Court
554 U.S. 570 (2008)
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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.
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