Firearm case law in the United States
Firearm case law in the United States is based on decisions of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Each of these decisions deals with Second Amendment, which is a part of the Bill of Rights, the right to keep and bear arms the Commerce Clause and/or federal laws regulating firearms possession.
United States Supreme Court cases
The Supreme Court has occasionally interpreted the Second Amendment and has also mentioned the Second Amendment when ruling on other legal matters.
Interpreting the Second Amendment
- United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875) - A post Civil War era case relating to the Ku Klux Klan depriving freed slaves basic rights such as freedom of assembly and to bear arms. The court ruled the application of the First and Second Amendments "was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens" and "has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government," respectively. In summary, it ruled the federal government could not file charges against citizens in federal court regarding violations of other citizens' constitutional rights. It was up to the states to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens when their rights were abridged by other citizens.
- Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886) - This second post-Civil War era case related to the meaning of the Second Amendment rights relating to militias and individuals. The court ruled the Second Amendment right was a right of individuals, not militias, and was not a right to form or belong to a militia, but related to an individual right to bear arms for the good of the United States, who could serve as members of a militia upon being called up by the Government in time of collective need. In essence, it declared, although individuals have the right to keep and bear arms, a state law prohibiting common citizens from forming personal military organizations, and drilling or parading, is still constitutional because prohibiting such personal military formations and parades does not limit a personal right to keep and bear arms:
- "We think it clear that there are no sections under consideration, which only forbid bodies of men to associate together as military organizations, or to drill or parade with arms in cities and towns unless authorized by law, do not infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms."
- The Court also noted that the Second Amendment only restrained the federal government from regulating gun ownership, not the individual states:
"The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed, but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government, leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights it recognizes to what is called in City of New York v. Miln, 11 Pet. [116 U.S. 252, 102] 139, the 'powers which relate to merely municipal legislation, or what was perhaps more properly called internal police,' 'not surrendered or restrained' by the constitution of the United States."
- United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939) - The Court stated in part:
"In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' 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 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... The signification attributed to the term Militia appears from the debates in the Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators. These show plainly enough that the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. 'A body of citizens enrolled for military discipline.' And further, that ordinarily when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time."'
- District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) - The Court ruled the Second Amendment to reference an individual right, holding:
"The Second Amendment guarantees 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."
- McDonald v. Chicago (2010) - The Court ruled that the Second Amendment was incorporated against state and local governments, through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- In the decision, the Court said:
In Heller, we held that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a handgun in the home for the purpose of self-defense. Unless considerations of stare decisis counsel otherwise, a provision of the Bill of Rights that protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective applies equally to the Federal Government and the States. We therefore hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right recognized in Heller.
Mentioning the Second Amendment
- Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) - The court ruled Scott did not enjoy the protection of the Bill of Rights because of his racial background. However, in its ruling, it implies all free men do have the right to bear arms by indicating what would happen if he was indeed afforded full protection:
"It would give to persons of the negro race, ... the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, ... the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went."
- Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968) - A Supreme Court case which incorporated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial at the state level as required by the Fourteenth Amendment. In a concurring opinion by Justice Hugo Black, he used a statement by Senator Howard, who introduced the Fourteenth Amendment, to help validate the Court's ruling that the Bill of Rights as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment forces states, and not just the federal government, to protect the same individual rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights:
"Such is the character of the privileges and immunities spoken of in the second section of the fourth article of the Constitution ...the personal rights guarantied and secured by the first eight amendments of the Constitution; such as the freedom of speech and of the press; the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances, a right appertaining to each and all the people; the right to keep and to bear arms..."
- Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980) - Ruling that the Congress may prohibit felons from possessing firearms:
"This Court has recognized repeatedly that a legislature constitutionally may prohibit a convicted felon from engaging in activities far more fundamental than the possession of a firearm."
- United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez 494 U.S. 259 (1990) - A case dealing with nonresident aliens and the Fourth Amendment, but led to a discussion of who are "the People" when referred to in the Constitution:
"[T]he people' seems to have been a term of art employed in select parts of the Constitution. The Preamble declares that the Constitution is ordained and established by 'the people of the United States.' The Second Amendment protects 'the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,' and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments provide that certain rights and powers are retained by and reserved to 'the people.' See also U.S. Const., Amdt. 1 ('Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble') (emphasis added); Art. I, 2, cl. 1 ('The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the people of the several States') (emphasis added). While this textual exegesis is by no means conclusive, it suggests that 'the people' protected by the Fourth Amendment, and by the First and Second Amendments, and to whom rights and powers are reserved in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, refers to a class of persons who are part of a national community or who have otherwise developed sufficient connection with this country to be considered part of that community."
Firearm Owners Protection Act court rulings
- Farmer v. Higgins (11th Cir. 1990) - United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruling the ATF does not need to register new machine guns for private ownership under the exception of 18 USC 922(o)(A)(1).
- United States v. Warner (10th Cir. 1993) - United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruling regarding Mr. Warner, who was caught in Utah with a machine gun and convicted on 922(o), possession of a machine gun. Mr. Warner appealed on the basis the Utah constitution allows its citizens to bear arms, and therefore he is exempt based on 922(o)(2)(A), "under authority of the State." However, the court overruled this, citing the Farmer case saying machine guns were not meant to be in private hands, and although the Utah law gives permission to own automatic firearms, it did not grant him authority.
- United States v. Rock Island Armory (1991) - United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois ruling one cannot be prosecuted for 1934 National Firearms Act violations for machine guns produced after 1986:
"...since enactment of 18 U.S.C. § 922(o), the Secretary has refused to accept any tax payments to make or transfer a machine gun made after May 19, 1986, to approve any such making or transfer, or to register any such machine gun. As applied to machine guns made and possessed after May 19, 1986, the registration and other requirements of the National Firearms Act, Chapter 53 of the Internal Revenue Code, no longer serve any revenue purpose, and are impliedly repealed or are unconstitutional."
Commerce Clause challenges to firearm laws
- United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995) - In the first Supreme Court case, since the New Deal, to set limits on the Congress's power under the Commerce Clause, the Court declared the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 unconstitutional.
- United States v. Rybar (3d Cir. 1996) - In this case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled Congress did have the power to regulate possession of homemade machine guns under the Commerce Clause, later contradicted by the Ninth Circuit, but ultimately reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. The Third Circuit made this decision 2-1, with future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in dissent.
- United States v. Stewart (348 F.3d 1132 (2003) and 451 F.3d 1071 (2006)) - In 2003, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down Stewart's conviction on a charge of possession of an unregistered machinegun (18 U.S.C. §922(o)) on Commerce Clause grounds. Following the Supreme Court's decision in Gonzales v. Raich, the Court ordered Stewart remanded to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in light of the decision in Raich. The Ninth Circuit then upheld Stewart's conviction, concluding
"We therefore hold that Congress had a rational basis for concluding that in the aggregate, possession of homemade machineguns could substantially affect interstate commerce in machineguns."
- Text of Heller decision
- Gura, Alan (June 28, 2010). "McDonald - A Victory for the Second Amendment". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- Text of McDonald decision
- Dred Scott, Plaintiff in Error, v. John F.A. Sandford. December Term, 1856
- Kopel, David B. (1999). The Supreme Court's Thirty-five Other Gun Cases: What the Supreme Court Has Said about the Second Amendment. Independence Institute. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
- 907 F.2d 1041
- 5 F.3d 1378
- 773 F.Supp. 117
- U.S. v. Rybar, 103 F.3d 273
- Arms and the law - A web site with review and analysis of firearm case law
- NRA list of firearm court cases
- Guncite - List of Supreme Court cases related to the Second Amendment on Guncite
- Supreme Court cases - Comprehensive list of Supreme Court cases which deal with firearms
- State Supreme Court cases - Comprehensive list of State Court cases which deal with firearms
- The Supreme Court's Thirty-five Other Gun Cases - What the Supreme Court Has Said about the Second Amendment