Second Amendment cases rarely get taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, but a few cases in recent years landed in the highest court.
One of the most referenced cases, District of Columbia vs. Heller, brought the right to bear arms to national focus.
But what was the Heller case, and why was it a pivotal moment in the 2A fight?
Well, we’re here to break it down for you. We’ll walk you through the case, its history, and what the decision did for gun ownership.
By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of why this court case gained national prominence.
Before we go too far, as always, we need to throw a disclaimer on this. While the information provided here is legal in nature, it is not to be construed as legal advice and is for educational and entertainment purposes only.
Table of Contents
Who In the Heller?
One of the more notable Second Amendment cases in the last few years was District of Columbia vs. Heller.
The case changed firearms laws in cities and states that effectively prohibited firearms ownership.
It also recognized the right of individuals to own and use firearms for lawful purposes.
Like with all court cases, it’s important to know the case’s background to understand the ruling within the appropriate context.
Washington D.C.’s Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 banned residents from owning firearms and possessing unregistered guns.
However, police officers were exempt from the law, as were people who registered their guns before 1976.
Even if you managed to swing an exemption, firearms in the home were required to be unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or similar device.
Under this law, it was difficult, if not impossible, for a resident to own a handgun — let alone have one in the home.
Along with five other individuals, Dick Anthony Heller, a D.C. police officer, sued the city, claiming that the law violated their Second Amendment rights.
How so? By effectively denying their right to own firearms and keep them in the home.
Though Heller was allowed to carry a firearm while on duty as a police officer working in federal office buildings, off duty, he was not allowed to possess a firearm in his own home.
The case was initially dismissed at the District Court level but later appealed and sent to the Court of Appeals.
There, the Court first ruled that only Heller had standing to sue (i.e., he was the only one legally eligible to sue D.C. over this law).
Though the other individuals wanted to have handguns in their homes for various reasons, the law only affected Heller directly because he had applied for and was denied a handgun permit.
The other individuals had not applied for a permit at all.
Fortunately, the Court of Appeals considered the substance of the law. (In addition to deciding on the issue of standing.)
They ruled in favor of Heller, finding the law unconstitutional.
The Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms.
In contrast, the law was effectively a total ban on handguns. Furthermore, it required exempt handguns to remain kept in a nonfunctional state.
Of course, Washington D.C. appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fortunately for fans of the Constitution and freedom in general, the Supreme Court ruled (mostly) in favor of the Second Amendment.
Breaking D.C. vs. Heller Down
The Supreme Court looked at the Second Amendment by considering the context of the Amendment when it passed and the Amendment as a whole.
They also addressed the arguments on the types of firearms included under “arms” and the effect of the word “militia.”
To start, the Court recognized that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
In stating this, the Court also ruled that the “arms” of the 2A are not limited only to firearms that were in existence at the time the Constitution was written, stating:
“Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, the Second Amendment extends, […] to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.”
Even more important, the Second Amendment recognizes a pre-existing right to keep and bear arms.
The Constitution merely codifies that right into our founding documents.
In other words, the Second Amendment doesn’t give Americans the right to keep and bear arms because we’ve always had that right.
The Second Amendment’s purpose is to make sure we have that right written down so the government doesn’t infringe on it.
Looking at the history of what a “militia” was at the time the Constitution was written and the purpose of the militia, the Court aimed to clarify what the term meant.
The conclusion was that a “well-regulated militia” simply refers to a well-trained and disciplined group of able-bodied individuals — not necessarily an official military group.
Under that interpretation, which is now the law of the land, the Second Amendment applies to all individuals, not just those in the military.
Taking all those considerations together, the Supreme Court concluded that a handgun ban and a trigger lock requirement violated the Second Amendment.
With this ruling, the law was declared unconstitutional.
Residents were once again able to own handguns. Furthermore, they could keep them in their homes fully functional and ready for self-defense or other legal purposes.
However, the Court did not address the issue of whether a permit was unconstitutional.
Heller only sued on the issue of whether he could own a handgun and have it in his home.
Without an official decision, Washington D.C. continued to require permits for residents to own and carry handguns in their homes.
(You can read more on Washington D.C. gun laws here!)
In addition, the Court stated that their ruling in the case does not guarantee the right to carry concealed.
The ruling only covered the right to own fully functional handguns for self-defense in the home.
Finally, because Washington D.C. is not a state, the ruling only applied to D.C. — not the 50 states.
Fortunately, the Court took up a case, McDonald vs. City of Chicago, two years later.
That case confirmed that the results of D.C. vs. Heller apply to the states as well.
Even after the Heller ruling, many courts continued to leave laws in place violating the court’s ruling.
But there’s been increased pushback against gun control attempts in recent years.
More states are becoming Second Amendment sanctuaries, passing laws allowing for constitutional carry — carrying concealed without a permit requirement — and only requiring gun owners to follow federal gun laws for purchase and ownership.
And 2A cases are already up for consideration at the Supreme Court, with even more making their way through the legal system right now.