Gun Powder, Trigger Locks, and Justice Stephen Breyer


During the oral arguments for D.C. v. Heller last March, one of the more interesting—and, as it turns out, important—exchanges concerned a comparison between Washington, D.C.'s strict trigger lock provisions and early American laws regulating the storage of gunpowder in cities. In essence, the question was whether or not D.C.'s trigger locks left residents effectively unarmed and thus unable to protect their homes, and were there any historical precedents for this outcome? In his dissent today, Justice Stephen Breyer returned to this comparison, arguing that even if the Second Amendment does protect an individual right to self-defense (which he accepts, though he maintains that the amendment does not contain "a specific untouchable right to keep guns in the house to shoot burglars"):

colonial history itself offers important kinds of gun regulation that citizens would then have thought compatible with the "right to  keep and bear arms," whether embodied in Federal or  State Constitutions, or the background common law. And those examples include substantial regulation of firearms in urban areas, including regulations that imposed obstacles to the use of firearms for the protection of the home.

Thus Breyer accepts the District's position that the handgun ban and accompanying trigger lock provisions do not deprive individuals of the right to self-defense. Moreover, they represent "a permissible legislative response to a serious, indeed life-threatening, problem," that of "high-crime urban areas."