The Second Amendment Goes to Court

Civil libertarians respond to D.C. v. Heller


For the past three decades, Washington, D.C. has enforced one of America's most draconian gun control laws—a total ban on the possession of handguns, not to mention strict gun lock provisions for rifles and shotguns, that has left law-abiding citizens unable to legally defend themselves and their homes. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, in which seven D.C. residents challenged the constitutionality of the ban. At the center of the case is the question of whether the Second Amendment protects an individual or collective right to keep and bear arms.

Yesterday, the Court issued its long-awaited opinion, ruling 5-4 in favor of an individual right to own guns. reason assembled a panel of 8 leading civil libertarians to help make sense of what the Court said, what it means, and what's likely to come next.


Alan Gura: Yesterday's decision is a huge victory for liberty. First, we saved the Second Amendment. That much should be obvious from the opinion. Yesterday, federal courts in 47 states were telling Americans they had no Second Amendment rights. The score is now 50-0, plus the capital, in the other direction. For budding lawyers, "individual right" is now the correct answer on the Multi-State Bar Exam. The movement to end private firearm ownership in America is dead and buried. Yes, we've got some work to do to make sure it stays that way. It will.

The case is "narrow but broad." Narrow, in the sense that our objective was merely to secure the individual nature of Second Amendment rights, and demonstrate—with a judgment—that the right has substance. Broad, in the sense that this simple principle can now be applied in other contexts. This is not just about flat-out gun bans in Washington, D.C. homes. All regulations that touch upon Second Amendment rights will get a well-deserved constitutional look. Instant background checks and felon-in-possession laws will survive. Laws meant to harass gun possession, while at best advancing only a hypothetical public benefit, will not. The Second Amendment is now a normal part of the Bill of Rights. It's not realistic to expect one Second Amendment case to answer all right to arms questions for all time, just as we have no one decision telling us what a Fourth Amendment "reasonable search" in all circumstances. We may not win every case. We'll win a good amount of them. The next step is obviously 14th Amendment incorporation. I'm looking forward to leading that fight. Learn more at www.chicagoguncase.com.

Libertarians can be impatient. Would anyone prefer the quick certainty of Kelo? Or McConnell v. FEC? It may be a tough slog to restore the Takings Clause and free political speech. Restoring the Second Amendment will take time, too. Today, with the right to keep and bear arms, we start from a position of strength.

Alan Gura argued District of Columbia v. Heller before the Supreme Court. He is a partner at Gura & Possessky.


Glenn Reynolds: My first thought on Heller is that many gun-rights supporters never thought they'd live to see a Supreme Court opinion to the effect 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." Bob Levy, who brought the case against the advice of many gun-rights supporters, should feel very good about that.

My second thought is that this is a gift to the Obama campaign. While this won't take the gun issue off the table, it also won't energize the gun-rights crowd (which cost Al Gore the election in 2000 when he failed to carry Tennessee, largely because of his support for gun control) the way a contrary opinion would have. Obama's record of strong support for sweeping gun control would hurt him much more if gun owners felt more vulnerable.

My third thought is that whether this has much impact on the real world depends on how the next several cases proceed. In the 1990s the Supreme Court announced a major shift in Commerce Clause doctrine that offered the hope of paring back federal power considerably. But right-leaning public interest law groups didn't take up the challenge and bring carefully selected cases to advance the principle, leading it to be characterized by some (including me) as a constitutional revolution where nobody showed up. Gun-rights advocates are already talking about follow-on challenges in places like Chicago or Morton Grove. How well those are brought will have a lot to do with whether the Heller opinion is a milestone, or just a speedbump.

Glenn Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He blogs at Instapundit.com.


Randy Barnett: Justice Scalia's historic opinion will be studied for years to come, not only for its conclusion but for its method. It is the clearest, most careful interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution ever to be adopted by a majority of the Supreme Court. Its analysis of the "original public meaning" of the Second Amendment stands in sharp contrast with Justice Stevens' inquiry into "original intent" or purpose and with Justice Breyer's willingness to balance an enumerated constitutional right against what some consider a pressing need to prohibit its exercise. The differing methods of interpretation employed by the majority and the dissent also demonstrate why appointments to the Supreme Court are so important. In the future, we should be vetting Supreme Court nominees to see if they understand how Justice Scalia reasoned in Heller and if they are committed to doing the same. Now if we can only get a majority of the Supreme Court to reconsider its previous decisions—or "precedents"—that are inconsistent with the original public meaning of the text.

Randy Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at Georgetown University Law Center and author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty.


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.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at reason and the author of This Is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism. He is currently writing a book about District of Columbia v. Heller.


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.

On that last point, the Court says licensing and registration are not necessarily unconstitutional, but it sounds like it would look askance at conditions attached to them.

"Assuming that [plaintiff Dick] Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of Second Amendment rights," the Court says, "the District must permit him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home." (Emphasis added.) It's harder to predict which weapons will end up being covered by the Second Amendment, except that they will include handguns but evidently not machine guns or bazookas.

Finally, the majority opinion does not address the question of whether the Second Amendment, either directly or via the 14th Amendment, applies to the states as well as a federal domain like the District of Columbia. But it's hard to imagine why it wouldn't now that the Court has clearly acknowledged the right to armed self-defense as a fundamental aspect of liberty protected by the Constitution.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.


Dave Kopel: Heller is a tremendous victory for human rights and for libertarian ideals. Today's majority opinion provides everything which the lawyers closely involved in the case, myself included, had hoped for. Of course I would have preferred a decision which went much further in declaring various types of gun control to be unconstitutional. But Rome was not built in a day, and neither is constitutional doctrine.

For most of our nation's history, the U.S. Supreme Court did nothing to protect the First Amendment; it was not until the 1930s when a majority of the Court took the first steps towards protecting freedom of the press. It would have been preposterous to be disappointed that a Court in, say, 1936, would not declare a ban on flag-burning to be unconstitutional. It took decades for the Supreme Court to build a robust First Amendment doctrine strong enough to protect even the free speech rights of people as loathsome as flag-burners or American Nazis.

Likewise, the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was, for all practical purposes, judicially nullified from its enactment until the 1930s. When the Court in that decade started taking Equal Protection seriously, the Court began with the easiest cases—such as Missouri's banning blacks from attending the University of Missouri Law School, while not even having a "separate but equal" law school for them. It was three decades later when, having constructed a solid foundation of Equal Protection cases, the Court took on the most incendiary racial issue of all, and struck down the many state laws which banned inter-racial marriage.

So too with the Second Amendment. From the Early Republic until the present, the Court has issued many opinions which recognize the Second Amendment as an individual right. Yet most of these opinions were in dicta. After the 1939 case of United States v. Miller, the Court stood idle while lower federal courts did the dirty work of nullifying the Second Amendment, by over-reading Miller to claim that only National Guardsmen are protected by the Amendment.

Today, that ugly chapter in the Court's history is finished. Heller is the first step on what will be long journey. Today, the Court struck down the most freakish and extreme gun control law in the nation; only in D.C. was home self-defense with rifles and shotguns outlawed. Heller can be the beginning of a virtuous circle in which the political branches will strengthen Second Amendment rights (as in the 40 states which now allow all law-abiding, competent adults to obtain concealed handgun carry permits), and the courts will be increasingly willing to declare unconstitutional the ever-rarer laws which seriously infringe the right to keep and bear arms.

As the political center of gravity moves step by step in a pro-rights direction, gun control laws which today might seem (to most judges) to be constitutional will be viewed with increasing skepticism. The progress that the pro-Second Amendment movement has made in the last 15 years has been outstanding. As long as gun owners and other pro-Second Amendment citizens stay politically active, the next 15, 30, and 45 years can produce much more progress, and the role of the judiciary in protecting Second Amendment rights will continue to grow.

Dave Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, in Golden, Colorado. He was one of three lawyers at the counsel table who assisted Alan Gura at the oral argument on March 18. His brief for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association was cited four times in the Court's opinions.


Joyce Lee Malcolm: What a great day for individual rights. The majority of the Supreme Court retrieved the original intent of the Second Amendment to permit individuals the right and ability to defend themselves. For thirty years those convinced that ordinary people can't be trusted with guns have dominated the discussion. In order to ban civilian ownership of weapons, the original meaning of the Second Amendment had to be reinterpreted, and unfortunately with its awkward language—which was well-understood at the time—that wasn't too difficult. Generations of law students have been taught that the Second Amendment merely protected the right of states to have a militia, a right already incorporated into the body of the Constitution. The nearly complete control over the militia by the federal government was not altered in any way by the amendment, but no mind. The linguistic efforts to deny an individual right were quite inventive—"the people" only in this amendment meant a group, not an individual, "bear arms" implied an inclusively military context, that awkward word "keep" was to be erased by linking it with "bear" in order to make it exclusively military, and so on. And it all nearly worked. But not quite.

Thanks to the scholarly efforts of many people, the overwhelming evidence for an individual right to keep and have weapons for self-defense was uncovered and published. It was that evidence that the justices relied upon.

My only disappointment with an otherwise great decision was how narrow it was. Four justices ignored the evidence in order to preserve the gun control measures meant to deny individuals the right to be armed. In the process, they were prepared to erase a basic right and uphold the stringent and ineffective D.C. gun ban, a law that went so far as to forbid reassembling a gun in the home in the case of a break-in.

Still, it was a great day for every American, one that will ensure a safer America than any number of gun bans ever could.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is professor of legal history at George Mason University School of law. She is the author To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right.