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Brian Doherty: The Heller decision was exciting for fans of American liberty—even the dangerous and disreputable end of that liberty, where weapon possession and use rights abide in the minds of many good-hearted people who think guns are just ugly and awful and appeal to the worst aspects of human nature.
Scalia's opinion did a thorough job of fileting, layer by layer, the lame and unsupportable "collective right" beliefs about the Second Amendment—including lots of sadly necessary exegesis on how the word "keep" means that people have a right to, yes, keep arms in their homes.
But Heller represents no happy ending to our legal and public policy duels over guns. Scalia's opinion does admit that we do have a constitutionally protected right to some degree to defend ourselves and our property with weapons.
But the opinion also stresses that right is still regulatable in many, many ways. It leaves plenty of room (which you can be sure will be filled rapidly) for future court challenges and public policy fights to define the degree to which the government, at any level, can restrict or regulate the sale, possession, and use of weapons. It may well turn out that anything less severe than D.C.'s total ban will withstand scrutiny even under the newly revived Second Amendment.
The "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" part: four members of the Supreme Court think that it's A-OK for the government to completely bar citizens from using guns for the protection of their lives and homes. That can't make sleeping at night any easier. That said, the Heller victory was a sweet one for the recognition that there are limits to what democracy can do to individual rights, and is worth celebrating for that.
Sanford Levinson: The majority obviously found that the Second Amendment does protect an individual right to bear arms, and they applied this right in the easiest possible case, i.e., a functionally absolute prohibition against handgun possession.
What cannot be determined from the opinion is what the future impact of Heller will be, beyond further litigation. I am reminded of a cartoon in the New Yorker several years ago, of a conversation at a suburban cocktail party where a woman says to a well-dressed man, who is carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder, “I've never met a Second Amendment lawyer before.” I suspect that there will be more such lawyers in the next few years, but this says nothing about the prospects of winning such cases. For all of the rhetorical bluster of Scalia’s opinion, it not only focuses on the extreme nature of the D.C. ordinance, but also goes out of its way in effect to legitimize a plethora of existing federal legislation regarding guns. And, of course, there is no way of knowing who will be appointing the all-important “inferior” federal judges, beginning in January 2009, who will play a far more important role than the Supreme Court in deciding the operational meaning of the Second Amendment.
Finally, Scalia should take a certain pleasure that Justice Stevens, by confining the entirety of his opinion to an “originalist” analysis of the Second Amendment (that obviously came to a completely different conclusion), seemed to concede the overarching importance of original meaning. Neither Justice was willing to pay any attention to the “dynamic” aspect of the Second Amendment. Scalia was presumably unwilling to cite Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott, but it’s the strongest single piece of evidence for the proposition that by mid-19th century an individual right to bear arms (at least if you were an American citizen) had become the conventional wisdom.
Sanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School. His most recent book is Our Undemocratic Constitution.
Jacob Sullum: The most important aspect of D.C. v. Heller, of course, is the Supreme Court's recognition that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to arms. From that premise it almost inevitably follows that the District of Columbia's gun law—which, as the Court noted, "bans handgun possession in the home" and "requires that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock at all times, rendering it inoperable"—is unconstitutional. If such a law does not violate the right to armed self-defense, it's hard to imagine what law would. That's why the Court did not bother to specify what level of scrutiny is appropriate for purported violations of the Second Amendment. It concluded that the D.C. law is invalid "under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights."
By the same token, however, this decision does not give a clear sense of the line between constitutional and unconstitutional forms of gun control. The Court indicates that laws regulating the sale of firearms and prohibiting concealed carry, gun ownership by "felons and the mentally ill," possession of "unusual and dangerous weapons" (as opposed to weapons in common use for lawful purposes), and possession of firearms in "sensitive places" such as schools and government buildings are consistent with the Second Amendment. But it is not clear whether a law against openly carrying guns would pass muster, or what kinds of guns count as "unusual and dangerous," or how onerous licensing and registration requirements can be before they run afoul of the Second Amendment.