The ideologically split 5-4 decision in District of Columbia, et al. v. Heller, No. 07-290, struck down a city handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and defined the scope of the gun rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution for the 21st century.
Specific to this case, the court affirmed a Circuit Court ruling striking down the city's 1976 law banning handguns and allowing only disassembled or locked rifles and shotguns. Heller, a security guard, challenged the law after police refused to issue a license allowing him to keep a handgun in his home for protection.
In a cumulative 157-page decision that included two dissenting opinions, the court dissected the Second Amendment's scope for the first time since 1939, and wrote a court document laced with many historic references, legal analysis, and caselaw citations.
The court analyzed the language that says, "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."
This ruling is the first time in almost seven decades the court has considered the Second Amendment's scope, though the ruling in U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 179 (1939), didn't directly deal with this interpretation of the language - meaning it's the first time since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 that the court has taken on this monumental task.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority that - despite times and gun varieties changing since 1791 and how the court is aware of the handgun violence problems that exist - the Second Amendment applies to modern society.
"Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security and where gun violence is a serious problem," he wrote in the 64-page majority opinion. "That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."
Majority justices rejected arguments that the Second Amendment applied only to those arms that existed during the 18th century, pointing to caselaw on how the First and 14th Amendments also apply respectively to modern forms of communications and search methods. It applies to "all instruments that constitute bearable arms" and doesn't just apply to those participating in structured military organizations, the court wrote.
But the court wrote that "like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," and used that to emphasize that it isn't casting doubt on long-standing bans on carrying a concealed gun or on gun possession by felons or the mentally retarded, and that laws putting conditions on gun sales and barring guns from schools or government buildings still apply.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented in their own opinions, noting that the majority limited state legislators from regulating gun control and no evidence outside of "historical narratives" leads to the conclusion reached by the majority that the constitution's framers intended to limit that action.
"I can find no legal basis for launching the courts on such a formidable and potentially dangerous a mission," Justice Breyer wrote, referring to the decision's potential to throw into doubt gun laws across the nation. "In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas."
Sixty-seven amici briefs were filed in the case, with 47 in support of Heller's Second Amendment right and 20 wanting a reversal to scale back the scope. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter is one of 31 state attorneys general who signed an amicus brief in support of the individual right, arguing that the Second Amendment applies to the rights of individuals, not states. Another brief from Congress recognized 250 House of Representative members and 55 Senators who supported Heller, including five of nine Indiana representatives but no Hoosier senators. Those included are: Representatives Dan Burton, Steve Buyer, Joe Donnelly, Michael Pence, and Mark Souder.