OF COLUMBIA, et al., PETITIONERS v.
DICK ANTHONY HELLER
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.
The District of Columbia generally prohibits the possession of handguns. It is a crime to carry an unregistered firearm, and the registration of handguns is prohibited. 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. District of Columbia law also requires residents to keep their lawfully owned firearms, such as registered long guns, “unloaded and dissembled 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.
Respondent Dick Heller is a D. C. special police officer authorized to carry a handgun while on duty at the Federal Judicial Center. He applied for a registration certificate 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 seeking, 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 carrying 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.” The District Court dismissed respondent’s complaint. 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, reversed. 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. The Court of Appeals directed the District Court to enter summary judgment for respondent.
We granted certiorari.
We turn first to the meaning of the Second Amendment .
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 infringed.” In interpreting this text, we are guided by the principle that “[t]he Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning.” 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 today’s
dissenting Justices believe that it protects only the right to possess
and carry a firearm in connection with militia service. Respondent
argues that it 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
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 rephrased,
“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.” Although this structure of the Second
is unique in our Constitution, other legal documents of the founding
era, particularly individual-rights provisions of state constitutions,
commonly included a prefatory statement of purpose.
Logic demands that there be a link between the stated purpose and the command.... But apart from that clarifying function, a prefatory clause does not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause. “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.” 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 operative clause is consistent with the announced purpose.
1. Operative Clause.
a. “Right of the People.” The first salient feature of the operative clause is that it codifies a “right of the people.” 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. 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.
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 people” 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....
As we will describe below, the “militia” in colonial America consisted of a subset of “the people”—those who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range. Reading the Second Amendment as protecting only the right to “keep and bear Arms” in an organized militia therefore fits poorly with the operative clause’s description of the holder of that right as “the people.”
We start therefore with a strong presumption that the Second Amendment right is exercised individually and belongs to all Americans.
b. “Keep and bear Arms.” We move now from the holder of the right—“the people”—to the substance of the right: “to keep and bear Arms.”
Before addressing the verbs
“keep” and “bear,”
we interpret their object: “Arms.” The 18th-century meaning is no
different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s
dictionary defined “arms” as “weapons of offence, or armour of
defence.” The term was applied, then as now, to weapons
that were not specifically designed for military use and were not
employed in a military capacity....
Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment . We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications, and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, the Second Amendment extends, prima facie,to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.
We turn to the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms.” Johnson defined “keep” as, most relevantly, “[t]o retain; not to lose,” and “[t]o have in custody.” Webster defined it as “[t]o hold; to retain in one’s power or possession.” No party has apprised us of an idiomatic meaning of “keep Arms.” Thus, the most natural reading of “keep Arms” in the Second Amendment is to “have weapons.”
The phrase “keep arms” was not prevalent in the written documents of the founding period that we have found, but there are a few examples, all of which favor viewing the right to “keep Arms” as an individual right unconnected with militia service.... “Keep arms” was simply a common way of referring to possessing arms, for militiamen and everyone else.
At the time of the founding, as now, to “bear” meant to “carry.” When used with “arms,” however, the term has a meaning that refers to carrying for a particular purpose—confrontation....Although the phrase implies that the carrying of the weapon is for the purpose of “offensive or defensive action,” it in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization.
From our review of
founding-era sources, we
conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that “bear
arms” had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, “bear arms” was
unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an
organized militia. The most prominent examples are those most relevant
to the Second Amendment
: Nine state constitutional provisions written in the 18th century or
the first two decades of the 19th, which enshrined a right of citizens
to “bear arms in defense of themselves and the state” or “bear arms in
defense of himself and the state.” It is clear
from those formulations that “bear arms” did not refer only
to carrying a weapon in an organized military unit...
In any event, the meaning of “bear arms” that petitioners and Justice Stevens propose is not even the (sometimes) idiomatic meaning. Rather, they manufacture a hybrid definition, whereby “bear arms” connotes the actual carrying of arms (and therefore is not really an idiom) but only in the service of an organized militia. No dictionary has ever adopted that definition, and we have been apprised of no source that indicates that it carried that meaning at the time of the founding. But it is easy to see why petitioners and the dissent are driven to the hybrid definition. Giving “bear Arms” its idiomatic meaning would cause the protected right to consist of the right to be a soldier or to wage war—an absurdity that no commentator has ever endorsed. Worse still, the phrase “keep and bear Arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque....
Justice Stevens points to a study by amici supposedly showing that the phrase “bear arms” was most frequently used in the military context. Of course, as we have said, the fact that the phrase was commonly used in a particular context does not show that it is limited to that context, and, in any event, we have given many sources where the phrase was used in nonmilitary contexts....
c. Meaning of the Operative Clause. Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment . We look to this because it has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment , like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed....”
There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment ’s right of free speech was not. Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose. Before turning to limitations upon the individual right, however, we must determine whether the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment comports with our interpretation of the operative clause.
2. Prefatory Clause.
The prefatory clause reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State … .”
Militia.” In United States v. Miller
, we explained that “the Militia comprised all males physically capable
of acting in concert for the common defense.” That definition comports
with founding-era sources.
Petitioners take a seemingly narrower view of the militia, stating that “[m]ilitias are the state- and congressionally-regulated military forces described in the Militia Clauses (art. I, §8, cls. 15–16).” Although we agree with petitioners’ interpretive assumption that “militia” means the same thing in Article I and the Second Amendment , we believe that petitioners identify the wrong thing, namely, the organized militia. Unlike armies and navies, which Congress is given the power to create (“to raise … Armies”; “to provide … a Navy,” Art. I, §8, cls. 12–13), the militia is assumed by Article I already to be in existence. Congress is given the power to “provide for calling forth the militia,” and the power not to create, but to “organiz[e]” it—and not to organize “a” militia, which is what one would expect if the militia were to be a federal creation, but to organize “the” militia, connoting a body already in existence. This is fully consistent with the ordinary definition of the militia as all able-bodied men.... Although the militia consists of all able-bodied men, the federally organized militia may consist of a subset of them.
Finally, the adjective
nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.
of a Free State.” The phrase
“security of a free state” meant “security of a free polity,” not
security of each of the several States as the dissent below argued.
Joseph Story wrote in his treatise on the
Constitution that “the word ‘state’ is used in various senses [and in]
its most enlarged sense, it means the people composing a particular
nation or community.” It is true that the term “State” elsewhere in the
Constitution refers to individual States, but the phrase “security of a
free state” and close variations seem to have been terms of art in
18th-century political discourse, meaning a “ ‘free
country’ ” or free
There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be “necessary to the security of a free state.” First, of course, it is useful in repelling invasions and suppressing insurrections. Second, it renders large standing armies unnecessary—an argument that Alexander Hamilton made in favor of federal control over the militia. Third, when the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.
3. Relationship between Prefatory Clause and Operative Clause
We reach the question, then: Does the preface fit with an operative clause that creates an individual right to keep and bear arms? It fits perfectly, once one knows the history that the founding generation knew and that we have described above. That history showed that the way tyrants had eliminated a militia consisting of all the able-bodied men was not by banning the militia but simply by taking away the people’s arms, enabling a select militia or standing army to suppress political opponents. This is what had occurred in England that prompted codification of the right to have arms in the English Bill of Rights.
The debate with respect to the right to keep and bear arms, as with other guarantees in the Bill of Rights, was not over whether it was desirable (all agreed that it was) but over whether it needed to be codified in the Constitution. During the 1788 ratification debates, the fear that the federal government would disarm the people in order to impose rule through a standing army or select militia was pervasive in Antifederalist rhetoric.... It was understood across the political spectrum that the right helped to secure the ideal of a citizen militia, which might be necessary to oppose an oppressive military force if the constitutional order broke down.
It is therefore entirely sensible that the Second Amendment ’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia. The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting. But the threat that the new Federal Government would destroy the citizens’ militia by taking away their arms was the reason that right—unlike some other English rights—was codified in a written Constitution....
Our interpretation is
confirmed by analogous
arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and
immediately followed adoption of the Second
We now ask whether any of our precedents forecloses the conclusions we have reached about the meaning of the Second Amendment...
Justice Stevens places overwhelming reliance upon this Court’s decision in United States v. Miller (1939) . “[H]undreds of judges,” we are told, “have relied on the view of the amendment we endorsed there,” and “[e]ven if the textual and historical arguments on both side of the issue were evenly balanced, respect for the well-settled views of all of our predecessors on this Court, and for the rule of law itself … would prevent most jurists from endorsing such a dramatic upheaval in the law.” And what is, according to Justice Stevens, the holding of Miller that demands such obeisance? That the Second Amendment “protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes, but that it does not curtail the legislature’s power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons.”
Nothing so clearly demonstrates the weakness of Justice Stevens’ case. Miller did not hold that and cannot possibly be read to have held that. The judgment in the case upheld against a Second Amendment challenge two men’s federal convictions for transporting an unregistered short-barreled shotgun in interstate commerce, in violation of the National Firearms Act. It is entirely clear that the Court’s basis for saying that the Second Amendment did not apply was not that the defendants were “bear[ing] arms” not “for … military purposes” but for “nonmilitary use.” Rather, it was that the type of weapon at issue was not eligible for Second Amendment protection: “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that the possession or use of a [short-barreled shotgun] at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.” “Certainly,” the Court continued, “it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” Beyond that, the opinion provided no explanation of the content of the right.
This holding is not only consistent with, but positively suggests, that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms (though only arms that “have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”). Had the Court believed that the Second Amendment protects only those serving in the militia, it would have been odd to examine the character of the weapon rather than simply note that the two crooks were not militiamen.... Miller stands only for the proposition that the Second Amendment right, whatever its nature, extends only to certain types of weapons.
We may as well consider at this point (for we will have to consider eventually) what types of weapons Miller permits. Read in isolation, Miller’s phrase “part of ordinary military equipment” could mean that only those weapons useful in warfare are protected. That would be a startling reading of the opinion, since it would mean that the National Firearms Act’s restrictions on machineguns (not challenged in Miller) might be unconstitutional, machineguns being useful in warfare in 1939. We think that Miller’s “ordinary military equipment” language must be read in tandem with what comes after: “[O]rdinarily when called for [militia] service [able-bodied] men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.” Indeed, that is precisely the way in which the Second Amendment ’s operative clause furthers the purpose announced in its preface. We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns....
We conclude that nothing
in our precedents forecloses our adoption of the original understanding
of the Second Amendment
. It should be unsurprising that such a significant matter has been for
so long judicially unresolved. For most of our history, the Bill of
Rights was not thought applicable to the States, and the Federal
Government did not significantly regulate the possession of firearms by
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should 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.
We also recognize another
important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said,
as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those
“in common use at the time.” We think that
limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of
prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”
It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment ’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
We turn finally to the law at issue here. As we have said, the law totally bans handgun possession in the home. It also requires that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock at all times, rendering it inoperable.
As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of “arms” that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home “the most preferred firearm in the nation to ‘keep’ and use for protection of one’s home and family” would fail constitutional muster.
Few laws in the history of
our Nation have come
close to the severe restriction of the District’s handgun ban...
We must also address the District’s requirement (as applied to respondent’s handgun) that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times. This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. The District argues that we should interpret this element of the statute to contain an exception for self-defense. But we think that is precluded by the unequivocal text, and by the presence of certain other enumerated exceptions: “Except for law enforcement personnel … , each registrant shall keep any firearm in his possession unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device unless such firearm is kept at his place of business, or while being used for lawful recreational purposes within the District of Columbia.”
Apart from his challenge to the handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement respondent asked the District Court to enjoin petitioners from enforcing the separate licensing requirement “in such a manner as to forbid the carrying of a firearm within one’s home or possessed land without a license.....” Respondent conceded at oral argument that he does not “have a problem with … licensing” and that the District’s law is permissible so long as it is “not enforced in an arbitrary and capricious manner.” We therefore assume that petitioners’ issuance of a license will satisfy respondent’s prayer for relief and do not address the licensing requirement....
Justice Breyer moves on to make a broad jurisprudential point: He criticizes us for declining to establish a level of scrutiny for evaluating Second Amendment restrictions. He proposes, explicitly at least, none of the traditionally expressed levels (strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, rational basis), but rather a judge-empowering “interest-balancing inquiry” that “asks whether the statute burdens a protected interest in a way or to an extent that is out of proportion to the statute’s salutary effects upon other important governmental interests.” After an exhaustive discussion of the arguments for and against gun control, Justice Breyer arrives at his interest-balanced answer: because handgun violence is a problem, because the law is limited to an urban area, and because there were somewhat similar restrictions in the founding period (a false proposition that we have already discussed), the interest-balancing inquiry results in the constitutionality of the handgun ban. QED.
We know of no other enumerated constitutional right whose core protection has been subjected to a freestanding “interest-balancing” approach. The very enumeration of the right takes out of the hands of government—even the Third Branch of Government—the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon. A constitutional guarantee subject to future judges’ assessments of its usefulness is no constitutional guarantee at all. Constitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them, whether or not future legislatures or (yes) even future judges think that scope too broad. We would not apply an “interest-balancing” approach to the prohibition of a peaceful neo-Nazi march through Skokie. The First Amendment contains the freedom-of-speech guarantee that the people ratified, which included exceptions for obscenity, libel, and disclosure of state secrets, but not for the expression of extremely unpopular and wrong-headed views. The Second Amendment is no different. Like the First, it is the very product of an interest-balancing by the people—which Justice Breyer would now conduct for them anew. And whatever else it leaves to future evaluation, it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home....
And there will be time enough to expound upon the historical justifications for the exceptions we have mentioned if and when those exceptions come before us.
In sum, we hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment , as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense. Assuming that Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of Second Amendment rights, the District must permit him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.
* * *
We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns. But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.