In March the U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments in its first significant Second Amendment case since 1939.
The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, involves the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned on Second Amendment grounds in March 2007. In doing so, it became only the second federal appeals court to adopt the position that the amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms.
The last time the Supreme Court directly addressed the Second Amendment, in the 1939 case U.S. v. Miller, it upheld convictions for moving sawed-off shotguns across state lines. The Court based its decision on the premise that the Second Amendment applies only to weapons suitable for militia use. Since it focused on the type of weapon, it didn’t settle the question of whether the right to keep and bear arms belongs to individuals or merely to state-organized militias. This ambiguous ruling has contributed to decades of debate among legal scholars, judges, and the public about the meaning of the Second Amendment.
If the Supreme Court endorses the individual-right interpretation in Heller, it won’t be the death of all gun regulations, although it may rule out laws as strict as D.C.’s. According to the D.C. Circuit, “the protections of the Second Amendment are subject to the same sort of reasonable restrictions that have been recognized as limiting, for instance, the First Amendment.” As Robert A. Levy, the libertarian lawyer who organized and funded the D.C. gun ban challenge, told Mother Jones, “there are some restrictions that are permissible, and it will be the task of the legislature and the courts to ferret all of that out and draw the lines.”