The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 directly impacted only a handful of gun owners. But it may have been the most significant gun ruling in the court’s history.
While the Heller decision only directly addressed the issue of gun ownership by residents of federal enclaves, such as Washington, D.C., it marked the first time that the nation’s highest court gave a definite answer on whether the Second Amendment provides an individual right to keep and bear arms.
Background of D.C. v. Heller
The plaintiff in D.C. v. Heller was Dick Anthony Heller, a licensed special police officer in D.C. Heller was issued, and carried, a handgun as part of his job, but federal law prevented him from owning a handgun in his District of Columbia home.
Heller had unsuccessfully sought the National Rifle Association’s help with a lawsuit to overturn the D.C. gun ban after learning of the plight of fellow D.C. resident Adrian Plesha. Plesha was convicted and sentenced to probation and 120 hours of community service after shooting and wounding a man who was burglarizing his home in 1997. Although the burglar admitted to the crime, handgun ownership had been illegal in D.C. since 1976.
Though Heller was unsuccessful in convincing the NRA to take up the case, he connected with Cato Institute scholar Robert Levy. Levy planned a self-financed lawsuit to overturn the D.C. gun ban and hand-selected six plaintiffs, including Heller, to challenge the law.
Heller and his five co-plaintiffs — software designer Shelly Parker, the Cato Institute’s Tom G. Palmer, mortgage broker Gillian St. Lawrence, USDA employee Tracey Ambeau and attorney George Lyon — filed their initial lawsuit in February 2003.
The Legal Process of D.C. v. Heller
The initial lawsuit filed by the six plaintiffs was dismissed by a U.S. district court in the District of Columbia, which found that the challenge to the constitutionality of D.C.’s handgun ban was without merit.
Four years later, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the lower court’s ruling. In a 2-1 decision in D.C. v. Parker, for plaintiff Shelly Parker, the court struck down sections of the 1975 Firearms Control Regulation Act. The court ruled that portions of the law banning handgun ownership in D.C. and requiring that rifles be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock were unconstitutional.
Joining Levy in support of Heller and his co-plaintiffs were the state attorneys general of Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming.
Joining in support of the district’s gun ban were the state attorneys general offices of Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey, as well as representatives of Chicago, New York City and San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association joined the cause of the Heller team, while the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence cast its support to the D.C. team.
Weeks after the appeals court’s ruling, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty petitioned the court to hear the case again. His petition was rejected by a 6-4 vote. D.C. then petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Before the Supreme Court
In legal terms, the case title changed from D.C. v. Parker at the appeals court level to D.C. v. Heller because the appeals court determined as part of its ruling that only Heller’s challenge to the gun ban’s constitutionality had standing. The other five plaintiffs were dismissed from the lawsuit.
That did not change the merit of the appeals court’s decision, however, and the Second Amendment was set to take center stage at the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in generations.
As individuals and organizations both in favor of and opposed to the gun ban lined up to support either side of the debate prior to the Supreme Court hearing, D.C. v. Heller garnered national attention.
With the 2008 presidential election just around the corner, Republican candidate John McCain joined a majority of U.S. Senators (55) who signed a brief favoring Heller, while Democrat candidate Barack Obama did not.
The George W. Bush administration chose to side with the District of Columbia, with the U.S. Department of Justice arguing that the case should be remanded by the Supreme Court. However, Vice President Dick Cheney broke from that stance by signing the brief in support of Heller.
In addition to the earlier states that had cast their support for Heller, a number of other states joined the fight, including: Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. Hawaii and New York joined the states supporting the District of Columbia.
By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court sided with Heller, affirming the appeals court’s decision. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the court’s opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Jr.
Dissenting were justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The court ruled that the District of Columbia must give Heller a license to possess a handgun inside his home. In the process, the court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms and that the district’s handgun ban and trigger lock requirement violated the Second Amendment.
The court’s decision did not prohibit many existing federal limitations to gun ownership, including limitations for convicted felons and the mentally ill, or limitations preventing the possession of firearms in schools and government buildings.