Our nation’s highest court has consistently recognized that the Second Amendment is entirely compatible with strong firearm regulations. Despite this, the gun lobby has repeatedly sought to invalidate lifesaving gun safety laws.
How DC v. Heller Shaped Second Amendment Law
There have been two landmark Supreme Court rulings on the Second Amendment in recent years: District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled on the Second Amendment for the first time in almost 70 years after Dick Heller sued the District of Columbia over its ban on handguns in the home. The court ruled in Heller’s favor, affirming an individual right to keep handguns in the home for self-defense.
In its decision, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court was careful to stress the limited nature of its ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted:
“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The Court provided examples of laws it considered “presumptively lawful,” including those which:
- Prohibit firearm possession by felons and the mentally ill.
- Forbid firearm possession in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.
- Impose conditions on the commercial sale of firearms.
The Heller decision was far from the blanket endorsement of unlimited gun rights that the gun lobby hoped it might be. Rather, the last decade of post-Heller litigation has demonstrated that the decision was a limited ruling fully compatible with the many lifesaving gun laws that protect us today.
An Extension of Heller to State and Local Governments: McDonald v. City of Chicago
In 2010, the Supreme Court heard a case challenging Chicago’s handgun ban, one similar to DC’s recently overturned ban. Otis McDonald and three other Chicago residents sued the city over the ban, and because the Heller decision only applied federally, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Supreme Court held in a 5–4 ruling that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments in addition to the federal government. While Chicago’s complete handgun ban was overturned, the Court reiterated in McDonald that a wide variety of state and local gun laws are constitutionally permissible.
The McDonald court stated that:
“It is important to keep in mind that Heller, while striking down a law that prohibited the possession of handguns in the home, recognized that the right to keep and bear arms is not ‘a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.’”
Post-Heller Litigation: Affirming the Constitutionality of Gun Safety Laws
The gun lobby has sought to expand the Second Amendment to invalidate almost every gun law on the books. Yet despite the explosion of litigation that followed DC v. Heller, courts across the country have repeatedly relied on Justice Scalia’s words to decide that essential gun safety laws are constitutional under the Second Amendment.
In siding with the majority of Americans who support sensible gun laws, courts are reinforcing that gun safety laws are not only constitutional—they’re critical to keeping our communities safe and protecting other constitutional rights, like the freedom to safely assemble in public without fear of gun violence.
Since DC v. Heller, lower courts have upheld a wide range of gun laws as constitutional, including:
- Laws restricting the concealed and open carry of loaded guns in public
- Bans on assault weapons, large capacity magazines, and silencers
- Prohibitions on criminals and the mentally ill possessing guns
- Firearm design safety standards
- Safe storage requirements
- Waiting period laws
- Private-sale background checks and licensing laws
Giffords Law Center’s Post-Heller Litigation Summary surveys the landscape of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state, and local gun laws after DC v. Heller, while Second Amendment Courtwatch provides an up-to-date overview of current Second Amendment challenges.
Giffords Law Center has been defending the constitutionality of gun safety laws for over 25 years, filing over 100 amicus briefs in critical cases and helping demonstrate time and again that gun safety laws are entirely compatible with the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, the gun lobby has invested millions to get judges opposed to gun safety laws confirmed to federal courts, including the Supreme Court.
Our legal experts continue to fight for the gun safety laws that we know save lives. We connect communities with pro bono legal support and provide model laws upon request. We stand up to the gun lobby in critical Second Amendment cases and pursue affirmative litigation to protect critical gun safety laws and challenge irresponsible laws that undermine public safety and threaten Americans. Through the Firearms Accountability Counsel Taskforce (FACT), we work with lawyers from the nation’s preeminent law firms to reduce gun violence and protect Americans’ most fundamental freedom—the right to live.