In McDonald v. Chicago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the right to keep and bear arms extends to individuals in each of the 50 U.S. states. The landmark, 5-4 decision came on the heels of the D.C. v. Heller decision in 2008, another resounding victory in the nation’s highest court for gun owners.
Nearly two years to the day before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in McDonald v. Chicago, the high court issued its most important Second Amendment-related ruling in 70 years. In D.C. v. Heller, the Supreme Court confirmed that the right to keep and bear arms extends to individuals in federal enclaves, such as Washington, D.C., but did not address the right of states to restrict individual gun ownership.
Shortly after the Heller decision, 76-year-old Chicago retiree Otis McDonald and three other plaintiffs — Adam Orlov and David and Colleen Lawson — were selected to challenge the Windy City’s 1982 law banning handgun possession. The case was organized by Alan Gura, the Virginia attorney who argued the Heller case.
After setbacks in trial court and in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Second Amendment Foundation appealed the McDonald case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arguments were heard on March 7, 2010, and the court’s ruling was issued June 28, 2010, reversing the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision and dealing a fatal blow to Chicago’s 28-year gun ban.
The Majority Opinion
By a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the Second Amendment was incorporated by the due process section of the Fourteenth Amendment and individuals were therefore granted a constitutional right to keep firearms in their homes for self-protection, a right greater than the states’ power to restrict it.
"It cannot be doubted that the right to bear arms was regarded as a substantive guarantee, not a prohibition that could be ignored so long as states legislated in an evenhanded manner,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
Joining Alito in the opinion were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and associate justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In the opinion, Alito noted that Chicago’s handgun ban was put into place in 1982 to protect residents from injury or death, but that the handgun murder rate had actually increased since the ban was put into place. “Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country,” Alito wrote.
The majority drew heavily on the Heller decision, calling self-defense “a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day.”
The Dissenting Opinion
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Writing on behalf of the minority, Justice Breyer predicted the decision “may change the law in many of the 50 states.” He added that historical evidence for the majority decision was “at most ambiguous.”
In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the majority decision exceeded the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, which does not necessarily protect constitutional infringement by states in the same manner that it protects federal infringement. “This is a quintessential area in which federalism ought to be allowed to flourish without this court’s meddling,” Stevens wrote.
As an immediate impact, the right of individuals in the U.S. to possess handguns for self-defense was specifically confirmed. While the ruling did not specifically strike down laws banning handgun possession in Chicago and its Oak Park suburb, Mayor Richard Daley admitted that the ruling made those laws “unenforceable.”
Like in its Heller decision, the Supreme Court held that state and federal laws prohibiting possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, as well as possession of firearms inside public schools, pass constitutional muster.