District of Columbia v. Heller

Gun policy is one of the most hotly debated topics in America.  Some believe the government should do everything in its power to stop gun violence, while others believe that certain government restrictions on firearm ownership are overreaching.

District of Columbia v. Heller District of Columbia v. Heller

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    It is the job of the courts to interpret whether gun control laws are constitutional. In the landmark case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment changed the conversation about the individual right to bear arms in the United States.

    District of Columbia v. Heller 2008

    District of Columbia v. Heller was argued and decided in 2008. After challenging the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws in 2003, Dick Heller and other residents of D.C. sued. After an appeals process, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It was the first time in almost 70 years that the Supreme Court dealt with a case that centered on the meaning of the 2nd Amendment.

    District of Columbia v. Heller Case

    Very few amendments have encountered the controversy and varied interpretations of the 2nd Amendment. The amendment states,

    “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

    The phrase's exact meaning has been a source of ongoing debate in the U.S. District of Columbia v. Heller centers on whether the 2nd Amendment protects an individual citizen’s right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes of self-defensive. The question the Court had to resolve was: Do the gun control measures by D.C. violate the 2nd Amendment rights of individuals who are not connected to a militia, but who wish to keep firearms in their homes for self-defense?

    District of Columbia v. Heller Summary

    The District of Columbia passed strict gun control measures in 1976. The laws included a ban on handguns and the requirement that all guns in homes must be kept unloaded and disassembled.

    Dick Heller was a police officer in Washington, D.C. who was authorized to carry a firearm on duty. When he applied for a handgun license for his home, he was denied. He sued the District of Columbia. He and others claimed they needed functional handguns in their homes for protection. Furthermore, he did not object to firearm registration nor did he want to carry it outside his home.

    A federal trial court upheld D.C.’s ban, but a federal court of appeals disagreed and ruled that the 2nd Amendment does protect and individual’s right to keep and bear arms in their home and handguns are considered “arms.” The District of Columbia appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

    District of Columbia v. Heller, Antonin Scalia, StudySmarterFig. 1, Justice Antonin Scalia, Wikipedia

    Constitutional Provision

    The Constitutional provision central to the case is the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, which was added in 1791.

    Arguments for District of Columbia:

    • The 2nd Amendment specifically says it relates to militias, not individuals.

    • “Arms” is a historic term that means military weapons

    • Handguns are not necessary for the preservation of a militia

    • Guns are dangerous weapons. There is a link between handguns and armed robberies, rapes, murders, and other violent crimes.

    • Overturning D.C.’s laws would challenge the right of state and local governments to make decisions in the specific interests of their public safety.

    • Fewer restrictions and government regulations are inadequate.

    • One purpose of government is to protect its citizens. Therefore, courts only need to determine if state and local gun control laws are rationally related to a reasonable purpose.

    Arguments for Heller:

    • The 2nd Amendment does protect an individual’s right to bear arms. Militia men carried their weapons for the most part.

    • Precedent dictates that firearms, such as handguns, that could be used in a militia, cannot be banned.

    • The right to bear arms is fundamental; thus any restriction must be reviewed with a strict scrutiny.

    • The right to bear arms is fundamental because it safeguards the most basic right—the right to preserve and protect one’s own life.

    • It is important that the nation’s capitol set an example and obey the Constitution and the 2nd Amendment.

    District of Columbia v. Heller Decision

    In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the handgun ban by the city of Chicago was unconstitutional and violated the 2nd Amendment rights of individuals who wished to keep arms in their homes. They ruled that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to own guns, even if they are not connected to service in a militia.

    Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and he was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Alito, and Thomas. The justices in the majority interpreted the 2nd Amendment to mean that the right of gun ownership was fundamental to the framers because of militia service, but gun ownership was not limited to those who serve in the military. The majority viewed the 2nd Amendment through a historical perspective and in their opinion explained that the individual right to self-defense was a natural right that existed before the Bill of Rights.

    Justice John Paul Stevens District of Columbia v. Heller StudySmarterFig. 2, Justice John Paul Stevens, Wikimedia Commons

    Justice Stevens delivered the dissent and was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Their interpretation of the 2nd Amendment was that the framers intended firearm ownership to be tied to state military service, and that the original intent of the amendment was not to ensure the right of individuals to keep and bear arms in their homes.

    The dissenting justices also looked to history and argued that the framers were concerned with federalism and the balance of power between the state and federal government. The Bill of Rights was added as a protection against the federal government, and that gun ownership was tied to the right of states to protect themselves against a possibly tyrannical government.

    Federalism: The Constitution’s system of dividing power between levels of government.

    District of Columbia v. Heller Significance

    District of Columbia v. Heller is a significant Supreme Court case because the Court held that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm. The Court's opinion was that the right is not connected to service in a state militia. Additionally, it is significant because the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to require that a firearm be kept unlocked and disassembled because in that form the firearm cannot be used for self-defense in an emergency.

    District of Columbia v. Heller Impact

    The impact of District of Columbia v. Heller is that individuals in D.C. cannot be restricted from lawful possession of firearms in their homes. Two years later, in the case of McDonald V. Chicago, the Court went further. The majority held that no state or local governments could restrict on individual’s right to keep and bear arms, thus incorporating the 2nd Amendment to the states.

    The 2nd Amendment, like other rights, is not absolute. Federal and states governments may pass reasonable regulations that are deemed in the interest of public safety.

    District of Columbia v. Heller - Key takeaways

    • District of Columbia v. Heller is a significant Supreme Court case because the Court held that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm and that right is not connected to service in a state militia.
    • In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the handgun ban by the city of Chicago was unconstitutional and violated the 2nd Amendment rights of individuals who wished to keep arms in their homes.
    • The Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to own guns, even if they are not connected to service in a militia.
    • Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and he was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Alito, and Thomas.
    • Two years later, in the case of McDonald V. Chicago, the Court went further, and the majority held that no state or local governments could restrict on individual’s right to keep and bear arms.


    References

    1. "District of Columbia v. Heller." Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/2007/07-290. Accessed 21 Aug. 2022.
    2. Fig. 1, Antonin Scalia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonin_Scalia) by Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States - Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States by Public Domain
    3. Fig. 2, John Paul Stevens (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Paul_Stevens) by Steve Petteway, photographer for the US Supreme Court, In Public Domain
    Frequently Asked Questions about District of Columbia v. Heller

    What was the ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller?

    In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the handgun ban by the city of Chicago was unconstitutional and violated the 2nd Amendment rights of individuals who wished to keep arms in their homes. 

     

    What was the District of Columbia v. Hellecase about?

    The case of the District of Columbia v. Heller centers on whether the 2nd Amendment protects an individual citizen’s right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes of self-defense.

     

    What caused District of Columbia v. Heller?

    The District of Columbia passed strict gun control measures in 1976. The laws included a ban on handguns and the requirement that all guns in homes must be kept unloaded and disassembled. Dick Heller was a police officer in Washington, D.C. who was authorized to carry a firearm on duty. When he applied for a handgun license for his home, he was denied. He then sued the District of Columbia. 

    How does District of Columbia v. Heller relate to federalism?

    The dissenting justices looked to history and argued that the framers were concerned with federalism and the balance of power between the state and federal government. The Bill of Rights was added as a protection against the federal government, and that gun ownership was tied to the right of states to protect themselves against a possibly tyrannical government. Even after Heller, states may pass reasonable gun restrictions.

     

    What is the significance of District of Columbia v. Heller

    District of Columbia v. Heller is a significant Supreme Court case because the Court held that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm, and that right is not connected to service in a state militia.

     

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    What is the Constitutional Provision Central to District of Columbia v. Heller?

    In D.C. v. Heller, the Court, ruled that the 2nd Amendment protected an individual’s right to do what?

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