Supreme Court On Heller: Second Amendment Rights Not Unlimited

| February 18, 2013

The Facts

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, including an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.

That said, and the Second Amendment’s, “…shall not be infringed” notwithstanding, the Court, lead by Scalia, clearly stated that the Second Amendment right is not unlimited, and that it may be subject to reasonable restrictions.

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues.

The Court’s opinion should not 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, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

As noted in the Adam Winkler’s book, Gunfight, Heller lawyer Alan Gura himself argued before the court that a whole host of gun control laws would be consistent with the Second Amendment.

D.C. could “require safe storage” of guns, “for example, in a safe.” D.C. could require a license to possess a firearm and condition that license on what he called “demonstrated competency” with the weapon. It could also require “background checks” or prohibit minors from possessing guns.

Indeed, Gura counseled, D.C. should have “a great deal of leeway in regulating firearms.”

Cato Institute senior fellow Robert Levy agreed with the court’s ruling:

Even the NRA concedes that you can’t have mad men running around with weapons of mass destruction. So there are some restrictions that are permissible and it will be the task of the legislature and the courts to ferret all of that out and draw the lines. I am sure, though, that outright bans on handguns like they have in D.C. won’t be permitted. That is not a reasonable restriction under anybody’s characterization. It is not a restriction, it’s a prohibition.


“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” – Thomas Jefferson


  1. Winkler, Adam (2011). Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (pp. 228-229).
  3. Wikipedia: District of Coumbia v. Heller

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