Gun Rights Supreme Court Cases

As gun violence surges across America, the Second Amendment has become one of the most contested provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Its full text states that “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.” For most of its history, the Supreme Court addressed the Second Amendment only occasionally and in relatively narrow circumstances. This changed in 2008 when the Court reviewed a challenge to a handgun ban in the District of Columbia.

Writing the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected the argument that the Second Amendment protects only a right to possess and carry a firearm in connection with militia service. Instead, Scalia found that the Second Amendment supports an individual right to possess guns and to use them for traditionally lawful purposes. A series of Supreme Court decisions since Heller has reaffirmed this broad understanding of gun rights under the Constitution. As a result, legislatures seeking to pass gun control measures for public safety purposes have seen their options shrink sharply.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving gun rights, arranged from newest to oldest.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen (2022)

Author: Clarence Thomas

When the Second Amendment's plain text covers an individual's conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. To justify a firearm regulation, the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation.

Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016)

Author: Per Curiam

The Second Amendment extends to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding, and this Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the states.

McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

The Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense. (In other words, the right is protected from state as well as federal interference.)

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Author: Antonin Scalia

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.

Lewis v. U.S. (1980)

Author: Harry Blackmun

Congress could rationally conclude that any felony conviction, even an allegedly invalid conviction, is a sufficient basis on which to prohibit the possession of a firearm.

U.S. v. Miller (1939)

Author: James Clark McReynolds

In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a “shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length” at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, a court cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.

Presser v. Illinois (1886)

Author: William Burnham Woods

In view of the fact that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force of the national government, as well as in view of its general powers, the states cannot prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security. However, unless restrained by their own constitutions, state legislatures may enact statutes to control and regulate all organizations, drilling, and parading of military bodies and associations, except those that are authorized by the militia laws of the United States.

U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876)

Author: Morrison R. Waite

The Second Amendment declares that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed, but this means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.

Related Legal Guides: