Guns and States

Yesterday's oral argument in D.C. v. Heller (audio here and transcript here) strongly suggests that there are five votes for interpreting the Second Amendment as protecting the right of individuals to possess and use firearms for self-defense against human (and per Justice Kennedy's suggestion) non-human attackers. (Justice Kennedy suggested in a rhetorical question that settlers out beyond the reach of organized forces needed firearms to protect themselves from "hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that").

As numerous commentators have already indicated, if the Court does indeed find an individual right of private possession and use of firearms, that will be the beginning, rather than the end of the matter. One thing the Court will have to decide is what standard of judicial review applies to laws infringing the right. Another question will be whether the right is incorporated against the States or only applies against the federal government. Because the Heller case involves the District of Columbia, it doesn't directly present the incorporation question, since the District is not a state: The Second Amendment (whatever it means) applies of its own force to federal laws (including DC laws enacted pursuant to power devolved via Home Rule) governing the District, whereas the Second Amendment, if it applies to state laws, would do so via the Fourteenth Amendment's incorporation of it.

As I shall elaborate at greater length in my FindLaw column for next week, however, the Court may not be able to duck the incorporation question in Heller, because the District argues that the federal government has at least the same power to regulate in the District that States and municipalities have to regulate in their respective domains. To reject that argument---as the Court must in order to find an individual right applicable against DC regulation---the Court needs to address the incorporation question. Or so I'll argue next week.

Posted by Mike Dorf