Gun Possession Rights Under Heller
What did the Supreme Court say about your right to have a gun in District of Columbia v. Heller?
Updated March 22, 2016
In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on gun control, ruling that the U.S. Constitution protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for personal, lawful use. Yet despite the Court's clear ruling that one may keep a ready-to-use handgun at home for self-defense, Heller allows for certain restrictions on gun possession.
What Heller Says
The 2008 Heller case involved a challenge to the District of Columbia's ban on handguns. For the first time in nearly 70 years, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as it relates to gun control laws.
The Second Amendment provides, "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 many years, scholars and anti-gun proponents had argued that the Second Amendment provides a right to own guns only in connection with service in a militia, and that this right should not extend to private individuals. The Heller Court rejected that line of argument. It held that the Second Amendment creates an individual right to possess a gun for self-defense, at least in the home.
(Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010), the Court held that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms applies against state governments. And after that, in Caetano v. Massachusetts, 577 U.S. ___ (2016), the Court decided that the Second Amendment applies to stun guns.)
How Heller Affects Gun Control Laws
The gun control law at issue in the Heller case was a nearly across-the-board ban in the District of Columbia that also required people to keep any lawfully owned firearms “unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device” in most situations. It was considered to be the strictest gun control law in the nation.
Although the Heller decision adopted the broader, individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, the Court made it clear that the right to possess a gun continues to have a number of significant qualifications or restrictions. The Court indicated that the Second Amendment continues to allow for limits on guns like the following:
- Not allowing everyone to possess a gun. The right can be withheld from felons and the mentally ill, for example.
- Not allowing guns to be carried everywhere. Laws forbidding people from carrying firearms in "sensitive" places, such as schools and government buildings, remain valid.
- Certain restrictions on the sale of guns. Laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of firearms continue to be allowed.
- Banning certain types of guns. The Second Amendment does not protect guns that are not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns. (The Court endorsed the "the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of 'dangerous and unusual weapons.'")
- Outlawing concealed weapons. Laws prohibiting concealed weapons probably remain valid.
Consider speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you want a full explanation of the law, including how the law in your jurisdiction affects your rights.