The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 McDonald v. Chicago case considered whether the Second Amendment’s protection of the individual right to possess and use privately-owned firearms as affirmed in the Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision also applies to state and local governments.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “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.” The Founding Fathers drafted and ratified the Second Amendment in order to protect the individual right of citizens to possess and carry their personal arms—most notably but not exclusively firearms. The Founders did not believe that they were creating a new right in the Second Amendment; rather, they insisted that they were simply preserving a right that predated the birth of the American Republic. The Revolutionary generation considered the right to keep and bear private arms to be a traditional right of Englishmen that they had inherited, but more importantly they recognized that this right was an extension of the natural rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Despite changes in technology and relatively recent arguments advanced by “progressives” of various types, the words of the Second Amendment have the same meaning today as they had during our nation’s founding period.
Background of the Case
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that 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.” The landmark decision, however, applied only to the federal government and territory under its direct authority (such as the District of Columbia); states and local units of government were not covered by the ruling. In the wake of the Heller case, Chicago resident Otis McDonald decided to challenge his city’s virtual ban on handgun possession. McDonald was a retiree who lived in a deteriorating neighborhood, and he wished to obtain a handgun for self-defense in his home. Unfortunately, Chicago law prohibited the possession of unregistered handguns and, since 1982, the city refused to allow private citizens to register such firearms. Otis sued the city, citing its violation of his Second Amendment rights. A federal district court dismissed McDonald’s lawsuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal. McDonald then appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In a 5-4 ruling (with Justice Samuel Alito writing for the majority), the Court decisively sided with McDonald. It declared that, in addition to the federal government, state governments and their political subdivisions must also respect the individual right to keep and bear arms enshrined in the Second Amendment. Arguing that this right is “fundamental to the Nation’s scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” the Court ruled that “the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms fully applicable to the States.” In essence, the Court held that the Second Amendment was enforceable against the states via the doctrine of “incorporation,” by which fundamental Bill of Rights protections have been applied against state governments via the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In arriving at its decision, the Court noted that one of the chief objectives of the Fourteenth Amendment was to protect freed blacks from disarmament at the hands of hostile state governments in the post-Civil War South. The historical record unambiguously supports this contention. In the aftermath of the war, southern states attempted to resurrect antebellum slave laws by enacting so-called “black codes” that, among other restrictions, prohibited freedmen from possessing arms. Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment spoke openly and frequently about the urgent need for an amendment to the United States Constitution to remedy this injustice by protecting blacks from disarmament by former rebels who wished to keep them in subjugation.
According to significant precedents in the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago rulings, the individual right to possess and use privately-owned firearms for lawful and traditional purposes must be honored by federal, state, and local units of government. Unfortunately, though, many lower courts have been reluctant to abide by the holdings in Heller and McDonald. In several cases, “progressive” judges have set aside these precedents and instead have ruled according to their own predilection. Only time will tell whether inferior courts will allow the right to keep and bear arms to assume its rightful place in the pantheon of liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.
McDonald v. Chicago Supreme Court decision: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2009/08-1521
Dr. David A. Raney is a Professor of History and holds the John Anthony Halter Chair in American History, the Constitution, and the Second Amendment at Hillsdale College. Dr. Raney writes and speaks about the Second Amendment frequently, and his teaching and research interests range widely from the early American republic through the Civil War and Reconstruction.