It was a narrow decision. Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday properly struck down part of a local handgun ban in the District of Columbia, ruling that Americans have a right to keep a gun at home for self-defense.
Washington’s 32-year-old gun law, perhaps the strictest in the nation, barred most residents of the city from owning handguns and required that all legal firearms be kept unloaded and either disassembled or under trigger lock. Six residents challenged the law, saying they wanted firearms available in their homes for self-defense.
“After 30 years of ignoring that right, the District will finally have to respect it,” said one of those residents, Dick Heller, who works as an armed security guard at a federal government building in Washington, but who nonetheless was barred from keeping a loaded handgun at home.
By a 5-4 vote, the court rejected the creative but historically ridiculous claim that the Second Amendment protects only a state’s right to maintain a militia — generally now interpreted to mean a unit of the National Guard, in uniform and under orders from the central government. Rather, when the amendment says “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” it refers to a right of individual citizens, the court now properly finds — just as the Constitution does every other time it refers to the rights of “the people.”
Any other reading would have been absurd. Would the Founding Fathers — who had just defeated the greatest military power on earth thanks to the fact that the American yeoman farmer carried a serviceable rifle — have enacted a Second Amendment to guarantee the right of the central government to disarm the common populace, who it could then overawe with its own armed might?
Quite to the contrary, the federalists argued their new Constitution presented no such danger. The government could never impose a tyranny, Madison promised in The Federalist No. 46, since the regular army would find itself opposed by “a militia amounting to nearly half a million citizens with arms in their hands.”
Note that the militia thus described by the very author of the Constitution was conceived as a force of common citizens who could oppose the orders of the government — not obey and enforce them, like today’s National Guard.
“The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in the final decision of the court’s nine-month term. “These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. … The inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of ‘arms’ that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family and property is most acute. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home ‘the most preferred firearm in the nation to keep and use for protection of one’s home and family,’ would fail constitutional muster.”
Justice Scalia’s ruling also specifically addressed the requirement of the D.C. law under review that handguns be kept inoperable: “This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional,” the court found.
Critics — and the court’s dissenting minority — worry the decision may make gun restrictions in Chicago, New York City and other cities more vulnerable to legal challenges. We hope so, though Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for the court, stressed that nothing in the decision should be seen as challenging sensible laws that forbid felons or the mentally ill from having guns.
He also said governments can still regulate when and where people carry guns. For example, he specifically wrote that guns may still be prohibited near schools and in or near government buildings. “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Justice Scalia wrote.
Thursday’s modest court decision is a solid step back toward a nation where Americans can believe the Constitution means what it says — no matter how inconvenient the government may find it.