Supreme Court Holds the Right to Bear Arms Is an Individual Right

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. _____ (2008)

On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. ______ (2008), holding unconstitutional the District of Columbia law which prohibited the possession of usable handguns in the home. In this 5-4 ruling, the Court held that the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment was an individual right, and not merely the right of a governmental militia.

The question of whether the right to bear arms belonged to the individual or to the militia has been a subject of debate for decades. The only question was which side the Supreme Court would take on the issue. In my opinion, the Supreme Court got it right. But I am concerned and disturbed that vote was so close (5-4). With the Supreme Court’s recent penchant to ignore the principles of stare decisis. I personally have concerns about the permanency of this ruling. Nevertheless, as it now stands, this is a good and important ruling.

D.C. law made it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm, and the registration of handguns was prohibited. Dick Heller sued to enjoin the District of Columbia from enforcing this law, contending that the law violated the Second Amendment of the Constitution. That amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

If the Amendment means what it says, then there should be no question that the right spoken of, the right to bear arms, belongs to the “people,” and not to the “militia.” However, this plain reading of the Amendment was challenged by the District of Columbia and by four of the Justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer). They argued (1) that the prefatory clause changed the meaning of the operative clause in the Amendment, and (2) that the handgun ban was a reasonable limitation on the right to bear arms that did not violate the general spirit of the Amendment. But the majority rejected both of these assertions.

I. The Majority Opinion

Justice Scalia, who wrote for the majority, pointed out that a prefatory clause (such as “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”) does not normally modify the operative clause that follows (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”)—but rather gives one reason as to why the operative clause may be necessary. Justice Scalia said that the normal reading of the two clauses was appropriate here. In fact, he pointed out, the operative clause specifically states that the right belongs to the “people.” The right, therefore, is an individual right of the people.

Justice Scalia further pointed out that the very nature of the militia in the early days of our nation, was that it was comprised of individuals in the community who bore arms. It would have been illogical and contradictory for the Amend-ment to state that the people did not individually possess the right to bear arms. Additionally, he pointed out that if the intent of the amendment was to limit its meaning to only be a right if the militia should need a person’s participation, then there would have been no purpose for the operative clause. Justice Scalia points out that historically the amendment was widely under-stood to recognize an “individual” right, and he found no evidence to the contrary. Finally, Justice Scalia pointed out that the Second Amendment did not create a right, but rather only recognized a right that already existed, and prohibited the government from infringing upon it.2

In concluding his opinion, Justice Scalia wrote these words: “[W]e hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense” (p. 64).

Reading Justice Scalia’s majority opinion was somewhat fascinating, because he painstakingly dissected every word and phrase in the short, Second Amendment to show that his interpretation was correct. It is interesting to see how the Court’s three opinions took 154 pages to dissect and analyze the 27-word, one-sentence amendment. And it is disconcerting to see how so many points in Justice Scalia’s opinion were disputed and contested by the two dissenting opinions. The dissenters impressed me as being strained and illogical and as denying important historical facts pertaining to the original purpose and meaning of the right to bear arms, as memorialized in the Second Amendment.

It is my judgment that the Heller case will be one of the most important cases in this nation for the next twenty years. I think it will be important to have some in-depth understanding of the case. I will now provide some analysis of and commentary on the dissenting opinions.

II. The Dissenting Opinions

A. Justice Stevens’ Dissent. To start with, consider what the four Liberal Justices stated as their fundamental opinion. They said this: “Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution” (p. 2). It is chilling to me to think that four of the current Justices of the Supreme Court hold this opinion.

The heart of Heller is whether the right to bear arms is an individual right OR whether it is merely a privilege to participate in a militia at the pleasure of the state. The Court (the majority) held it to be an individual right. After all, the Second Amendment says it is a “right.” But the dissenters said that the Amendment does not mean that. The two dissents (by Justices Stevens and Breyer) go on to employ their considerable intellectual and legal skills to argue that the Second Amendment does not mean what it says. They say that because the “right to bear arms” is connected to the need for a militia, that therefore this cannot be an individual right. (Justice Stevens says it is a “right” and a “duty” [p. 16].) But the end result of Justice Stevens’ opinion is that absent a militia there really is no “right.” This leaves nothing but an obsolete “duty” in the Second Amendment. The dissenting Justices never do answer the question of why our Founders called it a “right” if it really isn’t a “right.” Somehow they confuse “duty” with “right”—that is they say that the Second Amendment says that because militias are so important, therefore citizens can have certain arms, but only for use in the militia. This is a ridiculous interpretation. That’s not what the Founders meant, and that is not what the Founders wrote. Even if militias are obsolete, the Amendment continues to have a meaning in that if individuals should not have operable arms for their self defense, then it would be impossible to have militias.

Justice Stevens at one point did acknowledge the point that the Second Amendment did not create the right to bear arms (Stevens, J., Dissent, pp. 17 & 38), but he did not seem to appreciate what he acknowledged. Let me briefly explain what Justice Stevens seemed to miss: The technical wording of the Second Amendment does not create any right, but rather it states that the government shall not “infringe” on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

If you know much about James Madison (who drafted the Second Amendment), you know that he felt there was no need for a bill of rights because these rights already existed, and that there was no need to make a partial list of existing rights. In fact, he felt this could have undesirable consequences, if the partial listing of rights were used to later deny that some rights did not exist because they were not enumerated. (The Ninth Amendment was included to avoid this problem.) But, returning to the Second Amendment, Madison’s language again does not create any new right, but rather only restricts the government from infringing upon an existing right.

Well, having said this, what if the minority was right, and the Second Amendment only pertains to bearing arms as may be needed in the militia. If so, then, there is yet an individual right to bear arms that is not referenced in the Second Amendment. The Court never really discusses this issue because (a) the Liberal Justices don’t want to consider those implications; and (b) the majority interpret the Second Amendment to cover the right of individuals to defend themselves with guns, and therefore there was no need to go there.

1. “A Well Regulated Militia . . . .” Justice Stevens spends virtually all of his dissenting opinion to attempt to prove that whatever “right” is mentioned in the Second Amendment is entirely contingent upon and subject to the government’s use of militias. Justice Stevens made numerous strained arguments in his effort. Here are a few of them.
a. He argues that “bear arms” has reference only to using arms in the military (pp. 11 & 14). However, even some of the citations he includes in his opinion refute this unreasonable interpretation.
b. He says that because the Amendment did not include the words “a personal right to use arms in self defense” that therefore the Amendment could not have included such a meaning. This is a ridiculous argument. This is precisely the type of reasoning that James Madison was concerned about—that some would deny the existence of rights because a right may not have been specifically articulated. And while we’re on the issue—the failure to mention something does not mean that that thing does not exist. Yet that is the very argument that Justice Stevens makes. To have added the words “for self defense” would have been superfluous. The wording that was used plainly implies the use of arms for self-defense—otherwise the references to participation in militia actions would have made no sense.
c. Justice Stevens argues that the words “the people” could not possibly mean in the Second Amendment what it means in First and Fourth Amendments. He asserts that in the First and Fourth Amendments the people means all people, but that “the people” referenced in the Second Amendment is subject to considerable limitation. (For example felons and insane people can be barred from possessing arms.) Therefore, Justice Stevens makes the argument that the Second Amendment could not possibly confer a right on all “the people.” Frankly, this is pathetic reasoning.

2. Does the prefatory clause restrict the meaning of the operative clause? We now get to the main argument—does the prefatory clause (or preamble) restrict the meaning of the operative clause that follows? The obvious answer is “not necessarily.” Yet the four Liberal Justices insisted that the prefatory clause limits the operative clause (p. 8). This is blatantly false. Yet, not only do they refuse to acknowledge the error of their thinking, but they accuse the majority of being illogical.

3. The Miller case. Finally, let’s look at the case of United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), where the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a person had a Second Amendment right to possess a sawed-off shotgun. In this cased the Supreme Court upheld a statute that outlawed the possession of a sawed-off shotgun (less than 18” in length). This case established that the right to bear arms is not absolute, and that some weapons can be prohibited. The Supreme Court in Miller stated that there was no evidence that a sawed-off shotgun would have any use in a militia, and therefore the law banning them was upheld.

The dissenting Justices in Heller argue that the Miller case establishes that the prefatory clause does indeed control all the rest of the Amendment, and that whatever “right” does exist is subject to the government’s power to regulate a militia. The majority, however, did not read Miller that way; they acknowledge that not all “arms” are covered by the amendment (machine guns, bazookas and hand grenades could also be prohibited), but the majority did not find anything in Miller that infringed upon the fundamental meaning of the Second Amendment to include an individual’s right to bear arms to protect one’s hearth and home.

B. Justice Breyer’s Dissent. Justice Breyer also wrote a dissent, but his dissent is of lesser importance in my view. He argues that even if the Second Amendment included a personal right to use arms in self-defense, that the government could still impose reasonable limitations and regulations for the safety of society. He then concluded, that the District of Columbia did in fact have a reasonable basis to prohibit the use of handguns. (All four Liberal Justices joined in Justice Breyer’s dissent as well as in that of Justice Stevens.)

C. Stare Decisis. Although the liberal Justices all but abandoned stare decisis in reaching their opinion in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas,3 they nevertheless accuse the majority in Heller of doing just what they have been doing—lightly throwing aside Court precedents without adequate justification. This accusation by senior Liberal Justice Stevens (p. 4 of his Dissent), would be valid only if the majority interpreted the Second Amendment as he does. But they do not, and his criticism that the majority has not been faithful to stare decisis is without merit. But what makes this accusation by Stevens infuriating is that fact that Stevens and the other three liberals are the ones who have blatantly discarded stare decisis in Lawrence v. Texas and in McConnell v. FEC (campaign finance reform case).4

D. Judicial Activism. The same can be said for judicial activism. Justice Stevens concludes his 46-page dissent by accusing the majority of failing to exercise “judicial restraint.” This criticism is baseless—it is the liberal four who are attempting to legislate from the bench in Heller, just as they did in Boumediene, Lawrence and McConnell. And it is irritating to see them give lip service to the principal of judicial restraint all the while they themselves routinely ignore the principle because it regularly gets in the way of their philosophical agendas.

III. Summary

The Heller case is a critical case for Americans to understand because it high-lights the internal philosophical battle that is going on both in the Supreme Court and throughout the nation. On the most obvious level, this case is about whether individual Americans have the right to possess arms to defend themselves in their homes. But on a deeper level, it is also about whether individual rights are to be superseded by governmental control. And on this deeper level, the issue is whether we the people will turn our individual rights over to the government, and whether it is us or the government who know and decide what is best for us. As for me, I neither want nor need the government to take over my life.


1. See D. C. Code Sec. 7-2501.01(12), 7-2502.01(a), and 7-2502.02(a)(4) (2001). Another section of the D.C. Code provides that no person may carry a handgun without a license, and that the chief of police may issue licenses for one-year periods. D. C. Code Sec. 22-4504(a) and 22-4506. Finally, the D. C. Code requires that any firearms located in a home be “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. D. C. Code Sec. 7-2507.02. (These references are taken from page 1 of the Court’s majority opinion.)

2. It should be noted that in 1791 handguns were rare, and that the guns that were prevalent required a timely insertion of gun powder before they could be fired. Today’s handgun was not common place in that era.

3. 539 U.S. 558 (2003). In this case the Supreme Court overturned the case of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986) (which it had only decided 17 years earlier), and for the first time recognized a Fifth Amendment “liberty” to engage in private, consensual homosexual conduct.

4. 540 U.S. 93 (2003).

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