The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791, but it wasn’t until fourteen years ago that the Supreme Court read into it a right to use weapons for self-defense and declared a gun control law unconstitutional. For most of American history, federal courts left gun regulation to democratic debate. Judges understood the Second Amendment to safeguard the rights of “free state[s]” to maintain “well-regulated militia[s]” and to use guns in connection with militia service—a view the Supreme Court expressed in 1939.
Until recently, prominent conservatives agreed. Robert Bork—a high priest of the conservative legal movement and a staunch originalist—explained in 1989 that the Second Amendment’s “intent was to guarantee the right of states to form militia, not for individuals to bear arms.” In 1991 Bork repeated his view that the Second Amendment protected “people’s right to bear arms in a militia. The NRA thinks that it protects their right to have Teflon-coated bullets. But that’s not the original understanding.” For more than two centuries, this view governed American law. Not a single federal case struck down a gun law on Second Amendment grounds.
That changed in 2008, when five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme
Court asserted that they had discovered the “original
meaning” of the Second Amendment and used it to invalidate a law restricting
handgun possession. The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, involved
a challenge to a local law that barred most residents from owning handguns and
required that firearms kept at home be unloaded and disassembled or bound by a
trigger lock or similar device. The Court’s conservative majority held that the
Constitution’s framers ratified the Second Amendment to protect an individual
right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, especially in the home, where the
need for defense of self, family, and property is “most acute.” This 5-4
decision changed the way most Americans read the Second Amendment. The Court
brushed away the Amendment’s first clause—“a well regulated Militia, being
necessary to the security of a free State”—as merely “prefatory” and instead
emphasized “self-defense” as “the core lawful purpose” of the Second Amendment.
The phrase “self-defense” does not appear in the text of the Second Amendment. Neither does a reference to the “home.” The Court in Heller read these concepts into the Constitution. In doing so, it shifted responsibility for deciding the proper balance between gun rights and gun regulation from the people’s representatives to federal courts. For this reason and others, Heller was divisive, and scholars continue to question whether it was correctly decided.
Yet Heller was clear, as Justice Antonin Scalia put it in his majority opinion, that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” Heller focused constitutional protections on weapons used in self-defense in the home and recognized that government otherwise has ample authority to regulate weapons in the interest of public safety. “Nothing in our opinion,” Justice Scalia explained, “should 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.” As one of us has argued, public safety regulation of weapons is critical in a democracy to protect the public sphere—Americans’ equal freedoms to speak, study, shop, worship, and vote without fear.
Today’s Supreme Court, pushed even further to the right by President Trump’s three appointments, is poised to expand gun rights beyond Heller. This month, legal analysts expect the Court to strike down a New York law that restricts the carrying of guns in public places. The case could bolster constitutional limits on government authority to regulate guns outside the home, imposing the same pro-gun regime on New York City subways that governs rural Montana ranches.
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