District of Columbia v Heller

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District of Columbia v Heller

The Supreme Court’s decision inDISTRICT OF COLUMBIAv. HELLER (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-290.pdf) is significant, in that it clarifies the meaning of “the people” as used in the Constitution (“We the people…”). The confusion in understanding the Second Amendment was the explanatory phrase, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of afree state” which preceded the explanation of the right. In 21st century parlance this is often construed to mean that “the people” should have guns available only while they participate in the National Guard.

The meaning, however, was quite different in the 18th century. When the Bill of Rights was being written, the Founding Fathers feared both foreign and domestic tyranny. For this reason they didn’t want to have a standing army that could try to take over the country. Instead, they wanted the militia – all white males between 18 and 45 – to assemble as needed. This would be sufficient to repel foreign invaders – and by keeping guns in the hands of the populace, eliminate the risk of domestic tyranny. However, in order for this to work in a timely manner, for there to be able to be a well-regulated militia, the people who showed up had to have guns to bring, and know how to use them, as there would be time to organize the troops, but not to train them from the ground up. Thus, the right was a broad individual right, not a privilege, and was aimed at individuals, not the government.

This distinction is critical because the term “the right of the people” is used three times in the Bill of Rights alone.

It is used in the First Amendment, which says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It is used in the Second Amendment, which says:

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.

It is used in the Fourth Amendment, which says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In addition, the phrase “the people” is used in the Ninth, Tenth, and seventeenth Amendments which say:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.


The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.


The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

Had the Court decided that the people meant some government or administrative agency, rather than individual citizens, then the First Amendment would allow Congress to meet and to interact with the government, but it would not have allowed you to join with other like-minded citizens to make your voice heard. And while Congress would have been inviolate, Fourth Amendment rights would no longer have applied to you. We understand the Founding Fathers’ concern for liberty expressed in the  Bill of Rights, including their intent to encourage a pool of citizens familiar with the handling of guns. The Court has upheld this concern in their decision.

We also understand, as did the Court, that, of the 2,448,017 Americans who died in 2005, the last year of record, 17,002 committed suicide using handguns. While there is a clear relationship between the presence of guns and gun suicide (duh!), all clarity stops there. TheUnited Statesranks first in gun ownership but twenty-sixth in suicide: There is no correlation between presence of guns and suicide rates. In comparisons of cities where guns were common with cities where guns were not common, the cities without guns had much lower gun suicide rates (duh!). However, the total suicide rate was the same in both environments. We would not be surprised, therefore, to discover that while the number of suicides will not change in Washington, DC, some suicides which otherwise would take some other form will now become gun suicides.

In addition, 12,352 Americans were victims of homicides using handguns in 2005. This is a reflection of the culture of violence that has become interwoven into the fabric of American society since the Civil War. This level of violence is much higher than most Americans are aware: If you list total number of homicides by country, theUnited Statesranks as fifth. What happens if gun homicides are removed from the count? Sadly, the level of violence in this country is so high that when we take guns out of the picture we barely creep from fifth position to sixth.

We also understand that the Second Amendment has rarely been called into play. The last case we can think of would be the Battle of Athens (McMinn County,Tennessee) back in August, 1946. However, the fact that the Second Amendment is called into play frequently is not the issue. The issue is its availability to be called into play when needed. As Mrs. Roosevelt noted at the time, “If we want to continue to be a mature people who, at home and abroad, settle our difficulties peacefully and not through the use of force, then we will take to heart this lesson and we will jealously guard our rights.

What goes on before an election, the threats or persuasion by political leaders, may be bad but it cannot prevent the people from really registering their will if they wish to.

The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.”

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