If you’ve been in the firearms world for long, you’ve probably heard someone make a comment about District of Columbia v. Heller. Maybe it was mentioned as a way to reference the right to carry or perhaps it was spoken of in relation to the more current case of New York Pistol & Rifle Association, Inc v. Bruen; however it was mentioned, it was likely used to justify their argument. Do you know what DC v Heller was and why it’s so relevant to gun owners on a national scale? We’re here to explain the what, when, and why the Heller case matters to you as a gun owner.
What is District of Columbia v. Heller?
As with any legal case, there are a lot of details and nuances, but the Heller case can be summarized somewhat briefly.
On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the DC v Heller with their decision stating that the Second Amendment does give individuals the right to possess guns even if they’re not part of a militia.
Furthermore, they ruled that individuals had the right to firearms for defensive purposes (as long as said firearms are being used lawfully). It was a landmark case not only because of how rarely SCOTUS rules on gun-related cases but due to the fact that SCOTUS upheld and backed the Second Amendment.
A quick Second Amendment verbiage reminder:
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.
The following is an excerpt from the DC v Heller ruling. In its entirety, it’s well over 150 pages, making it difficult to cite in one piece:
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 armsbearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately
followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 28–30.
Who is Dick Heller?
Dick Heller was a DC Armed Special Police Officer who was working at the Supreme Court Annex at the time DC v Heller was filed.
On the Heller Foundation website, there’s a brief summary of his life and Second Amendment involvement:
Dick is a nationally known 2nd Amendment advocate and a proud citizen of the United States of America. Heller’s [second] gun case… entitled Heller II v. DC, [was] a follow-up to the victorious Heller v. DC case of 2008 that overturned the 1976 DC Gun Ban and opened the door for nearly 100 new gun cases nationwide in the first year after that Magnificent Justice Antonin Scalia Supreme Court Decision.
Heller became interested in 2nd Amendment Liberties when his house was shot up – once through his living room window and once in the front door – in the 1970’s at his residence on the nation’s Capitol Hill. He realized that the 1976 DC Gun Ban was disarming good citizens yet criminals were still bearing arms. Heller did not find the situation to be moral, safe, or constitutional and realized that “Doing nothing was no longer an option.”
Basically, Heller was a police officer in Washington, D.C., who carried a gun for his job, including in federal buildings. However, he was not allowed to have a gun at home. He’d applied for a one-year permit to have a firearm in his residence for self-defense and was denied. That’s the simple version of how District of Columbia v. Heller became a thing.
Why Does the Heller Case Matter Today?
The Heller case was and is important because it was the first time SCOTUS had definitively ruled that the Second Amendment did, indeed, guarantee an individual’s right to possess firearms for purposes outside a militia, such as self-defense at home.
Having SCOTUS weigh in on and support the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms was a big deal and remains as such. It’s been over a decade since the ruling, and the Heller case has been used in other cases to show that precedent was set by the case.
In 2022, SCOTUS came down with another decision on gun rights in the case of New York State Pistol and Rifle Association v. Bruen. In that case, the court ruled that New York’s restrictive laws requiring a person to show cause and convince local law enforcement they really need a carry permit were unconstitutional. The Heller case was cited during the Bruen case and is mentioned in the ruling as well:
New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense. Pp. 8–63.
(a) In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570, and McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, the Court held that the Second and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. Under Heller, when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct, and to justify a firearm regulation the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. Pp. 8–22.
(1) Since Heller and McDonald, the Courts of Appeals have developed a “two-step” framework for analyzing Second Amendment challenges that combines history with means-end scrutiny. The Court rejects that two-part approach as having one step too many. Step one is broadly consistent with Heller, which demands a test rooted in the Second Amendment’s text, as informed by history. But Heller and McDonald do not support a second step that applies means-end scrutiny in the Second Amendment context. Heller’s methodology centered on constitutional text and history. It did not invoke any means-end test such as strict or intermediate scrutiny, and it expressly rejected any interest-balancing inquiry akin to intermediate scrutiny. Pp. 9–15.
The Second Amendment Matters
As a gun owner, you’re likely aware the Second Amendment is important.
What you might not realize is that without people being willing to take huge chunks out of their lives and finances, gun rights in America wouldn’t be what they are today. It takes time, energy, and money to fight for gun rights. Fortunately, people like Dick Heller have seen what they consider to be injustices and worked to correct them. Thanks to the precedent set by DC v Heller and other cases, Americans continue to have the right to bear arms.
What do you think the most important legal case for gun rights was or is? Tell us what you think in the comments section.