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7. District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)
Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to keep and bear arms, or merely a collective right, contingent on militia service? That was the question the Supreme Court faced in 2008 when the legal challenge to Washington, D.C.’s notorious handgun ban finally reached America’s highest tribunal. The Court’s answer was a resounding victory for individual rights and the original meaning of the Second Amendment. The District of Columbia’s gun ban is unconstitutional, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, because it deprives individuals of their right “to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.”
Heller was also a masterful victory for the burgeoning libertarian legal movement. As Brian Doherty reported in Reason’s December 2008 issue, the Heller litigation “was pulled off by a small gang of philosophically dedicated lawyers—not ‘gun nuts’ in any stereotypical sense, but thoughtful libertarians who believe Second Amendment liberties are a vital part of our free republic. Together they consciously crafted a solid, clean civil rights case to overturn the most onerous and restrictive set of gun regulations in the country.”
6. McDonald v. Chicago (2010)
Heller settled the fact that the Second Amendment secures an individual right against infringement by the federal government (which administers the District of Columbia). But what about the states? Are they bound by the Second Amendment as well? That was the question victorious Heller lead attorney Alan Gura set out to answer by challenging Chicago’s equally restrictive handgun ban.
The result was another landmark victory for individual rights. “We have previously held that most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply with full force to both the Federal Government and the States,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority in McDonald v. Chicago. “Applying the standard that is well established in our case law, we hold that the Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States.”
The ruling’s most eloquent defense of individual liberty came courtesy of Justice Clarence Thomas, who filed a concurring opinion that offered both a mini-history of the origins of the 14th Amendment and a powerful argument for why armed self-defense is central to the struggle for racial equality.
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