A Journalists’ Guide to Heller from David Koppel: Journalist-guide-to-Heller-and-McDonald
In District of Columbia v. Heller, decided in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have the right to own guns. It was a strong affirmation of the Second Amendment rights that pro-gun groups hoped for. The Cornell Law School project put it this way:
It was not until 2008 that the Supreme Court definitively came down on the side of an “individual rights” theory. Relying on new scholarship regarding the origins of the Amendment, the Court in District of Columbia v. Heller confirmed what had been a growing consensus of legal scholars – that the rights of the Second Amendment adhered to individuals.
Handgun possession is banned under District of Columbia (D) law. The law prohibits the registration of handguns and makes it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm. Furthermore all lawfully owned firearms must be kept unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock unless they are being used for lawful recreational activities or located in a place of business.
Dick Heller (P) is a special police officer in the District of Columbia. The District refused Heller’s application to register a handgun he wished to keep in his home. Heller filed this lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia on Second Amendment grounds. Heller sought an injunction against enforcement of the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement prohibiting the carrying of a firearm in the home without a license, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms within the home.
The District Court dismissed Heller’s complaint. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed and directed the District Court to enter summary judgment in favor of the District of Columbia. The Court of Appeals construed Heller’s complaint as seeking the right to render a firearm operable and carry it in his home only when necessary for self defense, and held that the total ban on handguns violated the individual right to possess firearms under the Second Amendment.
It was a triumph above all for Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the opinion, but it required him to craft a thoroughly political compromise. In the eighteenth century, militias were proto-military operations, and their members had to obtain the best military hardware of the day. But Scalia could not create, in the twenty-first century, an individual right to contemporary military weapons—like tanks and Stinger missiles. In light of this, Scalia conjured a rule that said D.C. could not ban handguns because “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”
So the government cannot ban handguns, but it can ban other weapons—like, say, an assault rifle—or so it appears.
Updated March 5, 2013
The Law Center’s Post-Heller Litigation Summary surveys the landscape of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state and local gun laws asserted in the aftermath of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.
Download our December 2012 summary or read it below.