In 2010, the Supreme Court was asked to determine the scope of gun rights for individuals under the Second Amendment. They found that an individual's Second Amendment rights are enforceable against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, they determined that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" applied to individuals and not just citizen militias. Most importantly, the court concluded that these protections were enforceable against state governments, not just the federal government.
- Background of McDonald v. City of Chicago
- The Majority Opinion
- What Is Selective Incorporation?
Background of McDonald v. City of Chicago
In 1982, the city of Chicago passed a law that banned new handgun registrations and required all firearms to be registered. The law effectively barred most private citizens from owning handguns. It stood for nearly thirty years until a new Supreme Court finding opened the door for a challenge. Essentially, the decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago would not have happened without District of Columbia v. Heller.
When deciding District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, the Supreme Court found that the Second Amendment protected individuals' right to possess and carry weapons. Specifically, the court's decision established that:
"The Second Amendment protects 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."
The Heller decision struck down a District of Columbia law prohibiting residents from possessing firearms, including handguns, in their homes. Anticipating this result, the plaintiffs in McDonald v. City of Chicago filed their lawsuit the same day the Heller decision was announced. They alleged that Chicago's firearm law violated this individual right to bear arms.
The named plaintiff, Otis McDonald, was a 76-year-old Oak Park resident and retired maintenance engineer. He was an experienced hunter and legally owned several hunting rifles, but he felt growing concerns about safety in his neighborhood warranted owning a handgun. However, doing so was illegal under Chicago's gun ordinance.
The federal district court rejected McDonald's claims that the ban was unconstitutional, noting that prior Supreme Court cases had explicitly refrained from deciding whether the Second Amendment applied to the states. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, relying on three 19th-century cases that interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges and immunities clause.
The Supreme Court had already decided in Heller that the federal government could not infringe on an individual's right to keep and bear arms. So the crucial question in McDonald v. Chicago was: Does the Second Amendment apply to state and local governments?
The Majority Opinion
The McDonald decision was a close one, with a 5-4 majority. Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote their own concurring opinions.
In previous cases, the Supreme Court declined to extend Second Amendment protections to the states. However, the majority in McDonald v. Chicago concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. This line of reasoning relies on the legal doctrine of "selective incorporation," discussed below.
Interestingly, the court had to reject the plaintiff's central argument - that an individual's right to bear arms is essential to a civilized legal system - because prior Supreme Court cases reached the opposite conclusion. Instead, Justice Alito reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause prohibits states from infringing on protections from the Bill of Rights, including the right to bear arms.
The right of individuals to keep and bear arms for self-defense, the majority reasoned, was essential to the American "scheme of ordered liberty and system of justice." Therefore, Chicago's handgun ban was unconstitutional.
"The right to bear arms must be regarded as a substantive guarantee," Justice Alito wrote, "not a prohibition that could be ignored so long as the States legislated in an evenhanded manner."
However, the Supreme Court acknowledged in Heller that an individual's right to bear arms has its limits. It doesn't necessarily give someone the right to keep and carry any weapon they choose for any purpose. It was easy for the majority to rationalize an individual owning a handgun for self-defense, but they conceded that certain individuals should not own firearms. States can also still limit where guns can be carried. Bans on weapons in schools and government buildings, for example, are allowed.
What Is Selective Incorporation?
The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights, originally only applied to the federal government. Selective incorporation is a legal doctrine the Supreme Court has used to apply those protections to state governments. They do this using the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from denying life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
The Supreme Court uses selective incorporation to apply certain constitutional protections to the states rather than whole amendments. At this point, selective incorporation has been used to extend nearly the entire Bill of Rights to actions by state governments.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and John Paul Stevens dissented. Justices Breyer and Stevens wrote separate opinions to outline their arguments against the majority's decision.
In his dissent, Justice Breyer argued that historical analysis in Heller was flawed, saying that it was unclear whether the writers of the Constitution intended for there to be a "private armed self-defense right." Instead, he proposed that the Supreme Court should consider the broader goals of the Constitution, such as:
- Fostering equal respect for individuals
- Maintaining a democratic form of government
- Creating well-functioning institutions based on the separation of powers
Justice Breyer concluded, and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor agreed that the states would not have to recognize an individual right to bear arms under this framework.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed his own dissent on his very last day as a Supreme Court justice, arguing that the majority misunderstood the scope and purpose of the standards used in previous cases. Using a strictly historical approach to determine whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated gun rights, in his view, was untenable.
"The question we should be answering," he wrote, "is whether the Constitution guarantees individuals a fundamental right, enforceable against the States, to possess a functional, personal firearm, including a handgun, within the home."
This would be a much harder question to answer. But according to Justice Stevens, the problem of whether the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment had been resolved in the 19th century. The way he saw it, the majority was overturning 137 years of precedent by deciding that the privileges and immunities clause included protecting gun rights from infringement by state governments.
Visit FindLaw's Cases & Codes to read the Supreme Court's full decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago.