District of Columbia v. Heller,
554 U.S. 570 (2008)

Annotate this Case
Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Antonin Scalia)  | 
  • Dissent (John Paul Stevens)  | 
  • Dissent (Stephen G. Breyer)




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 07–290. Argued March 18, 2008—Decided June 26, 2008

District of Columbia law bans handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns; provides separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorizes the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and requires residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms in the home. The District Court dismissed the suit, but the D. C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms and that the city’s total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when necessary for self-defense, violated that right.


   1. 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. Pp. 2–53.

      (a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. Pp. 2–22.

      (b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause. The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. Pp. 22–28.

       (c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 28–30.

      (d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms. Pp. 30–32.

      (e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century also supports the Court’s conclusion. Pp. 32–47.

      (f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpretation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual-rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 47–54.

   2. Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose:  For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 54–56.

   3. The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfy his prayer for relief and does not address the licensing requirement. Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home. Pp. 56–64.

478 F. 3d 370, affirmed.

   Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

Private citizens have the right under the Second Amendment to possess an ordinary type of weapon and use it for lawful, historically established situations such as self-defense in a home, even when there is no relationship to a local militia.


In a rather artificially generated lawsuit, Robert Levy at the Cato Institute selected six plaintiffs for a claim that would test the individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. The group included a range of age groups, an even balance in genders, and two African-Americans. The named plaintiff, Dick Heller, was a licensed special police officer for the District of Columbia who was not allowed to have a gun at home despite being able to use it at work. Like the other plaintiffs, he lived in an area with high drug use and crime activity. The critical difference between Heller and the other plaintiffs was that he had applied for a handgun permit and been refused. This meant that he had standing to sue, whereas the others did not. They dropped out of the case in the early stages.

The District of Columbia had enacted the Firearms Control Regulations Act in 1975, which prohibited individual ownership of handguns in most cases except those possessed by current or former law enforcement officers. The six plaintiffs sought an injunction against the enforcement of this provision, as well as another provision of the law that required any guns to be kept unloaded and disassembled. While their case was dismissed by the federal district court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, finding that Heller had standing. The court defined handguns as arms within the meaning of the Second Amendment and held that the Amendment extends to rights beyond participating in the militia. Keeping guns unloaded and disassembled also was impermissible because it hindered individuals in exercising the right of self-defense.


  • Walter E. Dellinger (defendant)
  • Thomas Goldstein (defendant)
  • Robert Long (defendant)
  • Todd Kim (defendant)
  • Alan Gura (plaintiff)
  • Robert Levy (plaintiff)
  • Clark Neily (plaintiff)



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Emphatically ruling that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to possess arms and use them for self-defense inside the home, Scalia found that it extended well beyond the traditional meaning of militias. He analyzed the structure of the document, especially the prefatory clause, as well as its history. Scalia pointed out that state constitutions crafted similar provisions near the same time as the Second Amendment, and the Amendment's drafting history includes several proposals from the states that would have expressly protected the individual right to bear arms. He took readers on a lengthy tour of interpretations of the Second Amendment through the following centuries, finding that both the legal academy and legislators agreed with his perspective.

Scalia acknowledged that there might be some limitations on the type of weapon that could fit within this right, referring to U.S. v. Miller as a proper restriction to weapons that are in common use for lawful purposes. (Only these types of weapons could have been used by the militia.) States also can prevent convicted criminals from carrying weapons, limit their use in school zones or government buildings, and forbid the carrying of concealed weapons. Thus, his opinion was not an unqualified endorsement of the right to bear arms for any reason in any manner at any location. Dangerous and unusual weapons are not constitutionally protected.

Scalia declined to identify the standard of review that he applied, or guide courts on what standard to apply for future Second Amendment decisions. This was in part because he felt that the District of Columbia law failed any standard of review for measures curtailing individual rights, especially since the right of self-defense in one's home is central to national tradition. Scalia's decision thus rested on two different grounds for finding the law unconstitutional: interfering with the right to bear commonly used weapons and interfering with the right of self-defense and defense of one's family and property. The licensing requirement was not unconstitutional, but individuals must be allowed to register guns and receive licenses for home use.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Reviewing some of the same historical evidence as Scalia, Stevens felt that the Second Amendment would have expressly protected the individual right to bear arms if such was the drafters' intention. By contrast, he placed great weight on the prefatory clause in finding that its protections extended only to the militia. Stevens also pointed out that the state constitutions mentioned the right of self-defense as a justification of the right to bear arms, which suggested that this rationale was not present in the Second Amendment, since it did not mention self-defense. He criticized the majority for departing from settled Court jurisprudence on this issue and noted that many decisions in the lower courts would need to be repudiated or overturned.


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • John Paul Stevens

Even if the majority was correct in finding that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms, according to Breyer, the challenged laws still would be constitutional. Gun control laws serve a compelling government interest in public safety, and historically cities and states were able to regulate the use of weapons by civilians. Citing national statistics on gun-related violence, Breyer felt that the majority went too far in finding that residents of blighted neighborhoods had a constitutional right to keep loaded guns in their homes. He argued that the individual interest in the right of self-defense was outweighed by the state interest in preventing crime. Also, Breyer pointed out that classifying weapons as common or unconventional risked creating a slippery slope if broader types of dangerous weapons were legalized by legislatures.

Case Commentary

This decision may have less dramatic an impact than some observers initially expected. It did lead to a surge of litigation in lower federal courts regarding gun control laws. Most of these lawsuits have failed, however, and states still have the right to prevent criminals, illegal immigrants, drug addicts, and other high-risk groups from gaining access to weapons. Contrary to Breyer's fears, the group of weapons that is deemed constitutional for individual use has not expanded to machine guns or other types of unconventional weapons. School zones and areas around federal buildings still can be subject to restrictions, and concealed carry laws as well as laws against straw purchases generally were left intact.

The heavily historical nature of the opinion does make it a useful window onto the reasoning of the current Justices, which can help others in crafting constitutional challenges.

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