A Breakdown of D.C. v. Heller

A Closer Look at the Supreme Court's 2008 Landmark Second Amendment Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller directly impacted only a handful of gun owners, but it was one of the most significant Second Amendment rulings in the country's history. Although the Heller decision only specifically addressed gun ownership by residents of federal enclaves like Washington, D.C., it marked the first time the nation’s highest court gave a definitive answer on whether the Second Amendment provides an individual with the right to keep and bear arms.

Background of D.C. v. Heller

Dick Anthony Heller was the plaintiff in D.C. v. Heller. He was a licensed special police officer in Washington who was issued and carried a handgun as part of his job. Yet federal law prevented him from owning and keeping a handgun in his District of Columbia home.

After learning of the plight of fellow D.C. resident Adrian Plesha, Heller unsuccessfully sought help from the National Rifle Association with a lawsuit to overturn the gun ban in D.C. Plesha was convicted and sentenced to probation and 120 hours of community service after shooting and wounding a man who was burglarizing his home in 1997. Although the burglar admitted to the crime, handgun ownership had been illegal in D.C. since 1976.

Heller was unsuccessful in convincing the NRA to take up the case, but he connected with Cato Institute scholar Robert Levy. Levy planned a self-financed lawsuit to overturn the D.C.

gun ban and hand-selected six plaintiffs, including Heller, to challenge the law.

Heller and his five co-plaintiffs — software designer Shelly Parker, the Cato Institute’s Tom G. Palmer, mortgage broker Gillian St. Lawrence, USDA employee Tracey Ambeau and attorney George Lyon — filed their initial lawsuit in February 2003.

The Legal Process of D.C. v. Heller

The initial lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. The court found that the challenge to the constitutionality of D.C.’s handgun ban was without merit. But the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the lower court’s ruling four years later. In a 2-1 decision in D.C. v. Parker, the court struck down sections of the 1975 Firearms Control Regulation Act for plaintiff Shelly Parker. The court ruled that portions of the law banning handgun ownership in D.C. and requiring that rifles be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock were unconstitutional.

State attorneys general in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming all joined Levy in support of Heller and his co-plaintiffs. The state attorney general offices in Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey, as well as representatives in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco, joined in support of the District's gun ban. 

Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association joined the cause of the Heller team, while the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence cast its support to the D.C.

team. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty petitioned the court to hear the case again weeks after the appeals court ruling. His petition was rejected by a 6-4 vote. D.C. then petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Before the Supreme Court Ruling 

The case title technically changed from D.C. v. Parker at the appeals court level to D.C. v. Heller at the Supreme Court level because the appeals court determined that only Heller’s challenge to the gun ban’s constitutionality had standing. The other five plaintiffs were dismissed from the lawsuit.

This didn't change the merit of the appeals court’s decision, however. The Second Amendment was set to take center stage at the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in generations.

D.C. v. Heller garnered national attention as individuals and organizations both in favor of and opposed to the gun ban lined up to support either side in the debate.

The 2008 presidential election was just around the corner. Republican candidate John McCain joined a majority of U.S. Senators – 55 of them – who signed a brief favoring Heller, while Democrat candidate Barack Obama did not.

The George W. Bush administration sided with the District of Columbia with the U.S. Department of Justice arguing that the case should be remanded by the Supreme Court. But Vice President Dick Cheney broke from that stance by signing the brief in support of Heller.

A number of other states joined the fight in addition to those that had cast their support for Heller earlier: Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. Hawaii and New York joined the states supporting the District of Columbia.

The Supreme Court Decision 

The Supreme Court sided with Heller by a 5-4 majority, affirming the appeals court’s decision. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the court’s opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, Jr. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented. 

The court ruled that the District of Columbia must give Heller a license to possess a handgun inside his home. In the process, the court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms and that the district’s handgun ban and trigger lock requirement violated the Second Amendment.

The court’s decision did not prohibit many existing federal limitations to gun ownership, including limitations for convicted felons and the mentally ill. It didn't affect limitations preventing the possession of firearms in schools and government buildings.