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Law School Case Brief

Heller v. District of Columbia - 399 U.S. App. D.C. 314, 670 F.3d 1244 (2011)


Under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (1990), there are certain types of firearms regulations that do not govern conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit accordingly adopts, as have other circuits, a two-step approach to determining the constitutionality of the District's gun laws. The court asks first whether a particular provision impinges upon a right protected by the Second Amendment; if it does, then it goes on to determine whether the provision passes muster under the appropriate level of constitutional scrutiny. Insofar as laws do impinge upon a Second Amendment right, they warrant intermediate rather than strict scrutiny. With respect to the first step, longstanding regulations are presumptively lawful; that is, they are presumed not to burden conduct within the scope of the Second Amendment. This is a reasonable presumption because a regulation that is longstanding, which necessarily means it has long been accepted by the public, is not likely to burden a constitutional right; concomitantly the activities covered by a longstanding regulation are presumptively not protected from regulation by the Second Amendment. A plaintiff may rebut this presumption by showing the regulation does have more than a de minimis effect upon his right. A requirement of newer vintage is not, however, presumed to be valid. 


In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (1980), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the District of Columbia ("District") laws restricting the possession of firearms in one's home violated the Second Amendment right of individuals to keep and bear arms. In the wake of that decision, the District adopted the Firearms Registration Amendment Act of 2008 (FRA), D.C. Law 17-372, which amended the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, D.C. Law 1-85. Plaintiffs Richard Anthony Heller and others filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging, both facially and as applied to them, the provisions of the District's gun laws, new and old, requiring the registration of firearms and prohibiting both the registration of "assault weapons" and the possession of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The district court granted summary judgment for the District and plaintiffs appealed.


Did the District's gun laws violate the Second Amendment?


No, in part.


The appellate court held that the District had the authority under D.C. law to promulgate the challenged gun laws; the court upheld as constitutional the prohibitions of assault weapons and of large-capacity magazines and some of the registration requirements. Using the Heller framework, the court upheld the requirement of mere registration because it was longstanding and hence, presumptively lawful, and the presumption stood unrebutted. In Heller the Supreme Court of the United States explained the Second Amendment "codified a pre-existing" individual right to keep and bear arms, which was important to Americans not only to maintain the militia, but also for self-defense and hunting. Although self-defense had little to do with the right's codification, it was the central component of the right itself. Still, the Supreme Court made clear the right secured by the Second Amendment was not unlimited, and it gave some examples to illustrate the boundaries of that right. The appellate court also applied intermediate scrutiny to uphold as constitutional the prohibitions of assault weapons and of large-capacity magazines. However, the Court remanded the other registration requirements—such as the ballistics-identification provision and the one-pistol-per-30-days rule—for further proceedings because the record was insufficient to inform the Court’s resolution of the important constitutional issues presented.

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