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(Slip Opinion)
OCTOBER TERM, 2007
1
Syllabus
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is
being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been
prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Syllabus
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA ET AL. v. HELLER
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
No. 07–290.
Argued March 18, 2008—Decided June 26, 2008
District of Columbia law bans handgun possession by making it a crime
to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of
handguns; provides separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorizes the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and requires residents to keep lawfully owned firearms
unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused.
He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin
the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing
requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in
the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the
use of functional firearms in the home. The District Court dismissed
the suit, but the D. C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Second
Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms and
that the city’s total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that
firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when necessary for
self-defense, violated that right.
Held:
1. The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a
firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for
traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.
Pp. 2–53.
(a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but
does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative
clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it
connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. Pp. 2–22.
(b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation
2
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER
Syllabus
of the operative clause. The “militia” comprised all males physically
capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in
order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing
army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress
power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear
arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.
Pp. 22–28.
(c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous armsbearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately
followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 28–30.
(d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious
interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals
that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms.
Pp. 30–32.
(e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts
and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the
late 19th century also supports the Court’s conclusion. Pp. 32–47.
(f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpretation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor
Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individualrights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not
limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather
limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by
the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 47–54.
2. 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. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those
“in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition
of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.
Pp. 54–56.
3. The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to
self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban
on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an
entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the
lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this
Cite as: 554 U. S. ____ (2008)
3
Syllabus
prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense
of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional
muster. Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the
home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible
for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and
is hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument
that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfy
his prayer for relief and does not address the licensing requirement.
Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment
rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and
must issue him a license to carry it in the home. Pp. 56–64.
478 F. 3d 370, affirmed.
SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS,
C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a
dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ.,
joined. BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS,
SOUTER, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined.
Cite as: 554 U. S. ____ (2008)
1
Opinion of the Court
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the
preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to
notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Wash­
ington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order
that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
_________________
No. 07–290
_________________
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., PETITIONERS v.
DICK ANTHONY HELLER
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
[June 26, 2008]
JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.
We consider whether a District of Columbia prohibition
on the possession of usable handguns in the home violates
the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
I
The District of Columbia generally prohibits the posses­
sion of handguns. It is a crime to carry an unregistered
firearm, and the registration of handguns is prohibited.
See D. C. Code §§7–2501.01(12), 7–2502.01(a), 7–
2502.02(a)(4) (2001). Wholly apart from that prohibition,
no person may carry a handgun without a license, but the
chief of police may issue licenses for 1-year periods. See
§§22–4504(a), 22–4506. District of Columbia law also
requires residents to keep their lawfully owned firearms,
such as registered long guns, “unloaded and disassembled
or bound by a trigger lock or similar device” unless they
are located in a place of business or are being used for
lawful recreational activities. See §7–2507.02.1
——————
1 There are minor exceptions to all of these prohibitions, none of
which is relevant here.
2
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER
Opinion of the Court
Respondent Dick Heller is a D. C. special police officer
authorized to carry a handgun while on duty at the Fed­
eral Judicial Center. He applied for a registration certifi­
cate for a handgun that he wished to keep at home, but
the District refused. He thereafter filed a lawsuit in the
Federal District Court for the District of Columbia seek­
ing, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city
from enforcing the bar on the registration of handguns,
the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits the carry­
ing of a firearm in the home without a license, and the
trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of
“functional firearms within the home.” App. 59a. The
District Court dismissed respondent’s complaint, see
Parker v. District of Columbia, 311 F. Supp. 2d 103, 109
(2004). The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Circuit, construing his complaint as seeking the right to
render a firearm operable and carry it about his home in
that condition only when necessary for self-defense,2 re­
versed, see Parker v. District of Columbia, 478 F. 3d 370,
401 (2007). It held that the Second Amendment protects
an individual right to possess firearms and that the city’s
total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that
firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when
necessary for self-defense, violated that right. See id., at
395, 399–401. The Court of Appeals directed the District
Court to enter summary judgment for respondent.
We granted certiorari. 552 U. S. ___ (2007).
II
We turn first to the meaning of the Second Amendment.
A
The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated
Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the
right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be
——————
2 That
construction has not been challenged here.
Cite as: 554 U. S. ____ (2008)
3
Opinion of the Court
infringed.” In interpreting this text, we are guided by the
principle that “[t]he Constitution was written to be under­
stood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in
their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical
meaning.” United States v. Sprague, 282 U. S. 716, 731
(1931); see also Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 188 (1824).
Normal meaning may of course include an idiomatic
meaning, but it excludes secret or technical meanings that
would not have been known to ordinary citizens in the
founding generation.
The two sides in this case have set out very different
interpretations of the Amendment. Petitioners and to­
day’s dissenting Justices believe that it protects only the
right to possess and carry a firearm in connection with
militia service. See Brief for Petitioners 11–12; post, at 1
Respondent argues that it
(STEVENS, J., dissenting).
protects an individual right to possess a firearm uncon­
nected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for
traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within
the home. See Brief for Respondent 2–4.
The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two
parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The
former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather
announces a purpose. The Amendment could be re­
phrased, “Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to
the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep
and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” See J. Tiffany, A
Treatise on Government and Constitutional Law §585,
p. 394 (1867); Brief for Professors of Linguistics and Eng­
lish as Amici Curiae 3 (hereinafter Linguists’ Brief).
Although this structure of the Second Amendment is
unique in our Constitution, other legal documents of the
founding era, particularly individual-rights provisions of
state constitutions, commonly included a prefatory state­
ment of purpose. See generally Volokh, The Commonplace
Second Amendment, 73 N. Y. U. L. Rev. 793, 814–821
4
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER
Opinion of the Court
(1998).
Logic demands that there be a link between the stated
purpose and the command. The Second Amendment
would be nonsensical if it read, “A well regulated Militia,
being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of
the people to petition for redress of grievances shall not be
infringed.” That requirement of logical connection may
cause a prefatory clause to resolve an ambiguity in the
operative clause (“The separation of church and state
being an important objective, the teachings of canons shall
have no place in our jurisprudence.” The preface makes
clear that the operative clause refers not to canons of
interpretation but to clergymen.) But apart from that
clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or
expand the scope of the operative clause. See F. Dwarris,
A General Treatise on Statutes 268–269 (P. Potter ed.
1871) (hereinafter Dwarris); T. Sedgwick, The Interpreta­
tion and Construction of Statutory and Constitutional Law
42–45 (2d ed. 1874).3 “ ‘It is nothing unusual in acts . . . for
the enacting part to go beyond the preamble; the remedy
often extends beyond the particular act or mischief which
first suggested the necessity of the law.’ ” J. Bishop,
——————
3 As Sutherland explains, the key 18th-century English case on the
effect of preambles, Copeman v. Gallant, 1 P. Wms. 314, 24 Eng. Rep.
404 (1716), stated that “the preamble could not be used to restrict the
effect of the words of the purview.” J. Sutherland, Statutes and Statu­
tory Construction, 47.04 (N. Singer ed. 5th ed. 1992). This rule was
modified in England in an 1826 case to give more importance to the
preamble, but in America “the settled principle of law is that the
preamble cannot control the enacting part of the statute in cases where
the enacting part is expressed in clear, unambiguous terms.” Ibid.
JUSTICE STEVENS says that we violate the general rule that every
clause in a statute must have effect. Post, at 8. But where the text of a
clause itself indicates that it does not have operative effect, such as
“whereas” clauses in federal legislation or the Constitution’s preamble,
a court has no license to make it do what it was not designed to do. Or
to put the point differently, operative provisions should be given effect
as operative provisions, and prologues as prologues.
Cite as: 554 U. S. ____ (2008)
5
Opinion of the Court
Commentaries on Written Laws and Their Interpretation
§51, p. 49 (1882) (quoting Rex v. Marks, 3 East, 157, 165
(K. B. 1802)). Therefore, while we will begin our textual
analysis with the operative clause, we will return to the
prefatory clause to ensure that our reading of the opera­
tive clause is consistent with the announced purpose.4
1. Operative Clause.
a. “Right of the People.” The first salient feature of
the operative clause is that it codifies a “right of the peo­
ple.” The unamended Constitution and the Bill of Rights
use the phrase “right of the people” two other times, in the
First Amendment’s Assembly-and-Petition Clause and in
the Fourth Amendment’s Search-and-Seizure Clause. The
Ninth Amendment uses very similar terminology (“The
enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall
not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by
the people”). All three of these instances unambiguously
refer to individual rights, not “collective” rights, or rights
that may be exercised only through participation in some
corporate body.5
——————
4 JUSTICE STEVENS criticizes us for discussing the prologue last. Post,
at 8. But if a prologue can be used only to clarify an ambiguous opera­
tive provision, surely the first step must be to determine whether the
operative provision is ambiguous. It might be argued, we suppose, that
the prologue itself should be one of the factors that go into the determi­
nation of whether the operative provision is ambiguous—but that
would cause the prologue to be used to produce ambiguity rather than
just to resolve it. In any event, even if we considered the prologue
along with the operative provision we would reach the same result we
do today, since (as we explain) our interpretation of “the right of the
people to keep and bear arms” furthers the purpose of an effective
militia no less than (indeed, more than) the dissent’s interpretation.
See infra, at 26–27.
5 JUSTICE STEVENS is of course correct, post, at 10, that the right to
assemble cannot be exercised alone, but it is still an individual right,
and not one conditioned upon membership in some defined “assembly,”
as he contends the right to bear arms is conditioned upon membership
6
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER
Opinion of the Court
Three provisions of the Constitution refer to “the people”
in a context other than “rights”—the famous preamble
(“We the people”), §2 of Article I (providing that “the peo­
ple” will choose members of the House), and the Tenth
Amendment (providing that those powers not given the
Federal Government remain with “the States” or “the
people”). Those provisions arguably refer to “the people”
acting collectively—but they deal with the exercise or
reservation of powers, not rights. Nowhere else in the
Constitution does a “right” attributed to “the people” refer
to anything other than an individual right.6
What is more, in all six other provisions of the Constitu­
tion that mention “the people,” the term unambiguously
refers to all members of the political community, not an
unspecified subset. As we said in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U. S. 259, 265 (1990):
“ ‘[T]he people’ seems to have been a term of art em­
ployed in select parts of the Constitution. . . . [Its
uses] sugges[t] that ‘the people’ protected by the
——————
in a defined militia. And JUSTICE STEVENS is dead wrong to think that
the right to petition is “primarily collective in nature.” Ibid. See
McDonald v. Smith, 472 U. S. 479, 482–484 (1985) (describing histori­
cal origins of right to petition).
6 If we look to other founding-era documents, we find that some state
constitutions used the term “the people” to refer to the people collec­
tively, in contrast to “citizen,” which was used to invoke individual
rights. See Heyman, Natural Rights and the Second Amendment, in
The Second Amendment in Law and History 179, 193–195 (C. Bogus
ed. 2000) (hereinafter Bogus). But that usage was not remotely uni­
form. See, e.g., N. C. Declaration of Rights §XIV (1776), in 5 The
Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic
Laws 2787, 2788 (F. Thorpe ed. 1909) (hereinafter Thorpe) (jury trial);
Md. Declaration of Rights §XVIII (1776), in 3 id., at 1686, 1688 (vici­
nage requirement); Vt. Declaration of Rights ch. 1, §XI (1777), in 6 id.,
at 3737, 3741 (searches and seizures); Pa. Declaration of Rights §XII
(1776), in 5 id., at 3081, 3083 (free speech). And, most importantly, it
was clearly not the terminology used in the Federal Constitution, given
the First, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments.
Cite as: 554 U. S. ____ (2008)
7
Opinion of the Court
Fourth Amendment, and by the First and Second
Amendments, and to whom rights and powers are re­
served in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, refers to
a class of persons who are part of a national commu­
nity or who have otherwise developed sufficient con­
nection with this country to be considered part of that
community.”
This contrasts markedly with the phrase “the militia” in
the prefatory clause. As we will describe below, the “mili­
tia” in colonial America consisted of a subset of “the peo­
ple”—those who were male, able bodied, and withi …
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