Supreme Court Cases on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Prof. Eugene Volokh, UCLA Law School


              This page contains excerpts from all U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions that mention the Second Amendment:

  1. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)
  2. United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876)
  3. Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886)
  4. Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535 (1894)
  5. Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275 (1897)
  6. United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939)
  7. Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980)
  8. United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259 (1990)
  9. Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 503 U.S. 833 (1992)


Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 416-17, 449-51 (1857)

              [In the course of explaining that the Bill of Rights limited Congressional action in the Territories, the Court said:]

              The Territory being a part of the United States, the Government and the citizen both enter it under the authority of the Constitution, with their respective rights defined and marked out; and the Federal Government can exercise no power over his person or property, beyond what that instrument confers, nor lawfully deny any right which it has reserved.

              A reference to a few of the provisions of the Constitution will illustrate this proposition.

              For example, no one, we presume, will contend that Congress can make any law in a Territory respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people of the Territory peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.

              Nor can Congress deny to the people the right to keep and bear arms, nor the right to trial by jury, nor compel any one to be a witness against himself in a criminal proceeding.  These powers, and others, in relation to rights of person, which it is not necessary here to enumerate, are, in express and positive terms, denied to the General Government; and the rights of private property have been guarded with equal care.  Thus the rights of property are united with the rights of person, and placed on the same ground by the fifth amendment to the Constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law.  And an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.

              [Earlier in the opinion, in holding that blacks generally could not be U.S. citizens, the Court said:]

              It cannot be supposed that [the original 13 States] intended to secure to [blacks] rights, and privileges, and rank, in the new political body throughout the Union, which every one of them denied within the limits of its own dominion.  More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a Constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State.  For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety.

              It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them 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.  And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State.  


United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 551 (1876)

              [Cruikshank and others were tried under the Civil Rights Act of 1870 for lynching two blacks.  The Act barred people for conspiracy to "prevent or hinder [a person's] free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same."  The charges included, among other things, that the defendants conspired to interfere with the victims' rights to peaceably assemble and to keep and bear arms.  The Court threw out the indictment, saying:]

              The first and ninth counts state the intent of the defendants to have been to hinder and prevent the citizens named in the free exercise and enjoyment of their "lawful right and privilege to peaceably assemble together with each other and with other citizens of the United States for a peaceful and lawful purpose."  The right of the people peaceably to assemble for lawful purposes existed long before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States.  In fact, it is, and always has been, one of the attributes of citizenship under a free government.

              It "derives its source," to use the language of Chief Justice Marshall, in Gibbons v. Ogden, "from those laws whose authority is acknowledged by civilized man throughout the world."  It is found wherever civilization exists.  It was not, therefore, a right granted to the people by the Constitution.  The government of the United States when established found it in existence, with the obligation on the part of the States to afford it protection.  As no direct power over it was granted to Congress, it remains, according to the ruling in Gibbons v. Ogden, subject to State jurisdiction.  Only such existing rights were committed by the people to the protection of Congress as came within the general scope of the authority granted to the national government.

              The first amendment to the Constitution prohibits Congress from abridging "the right of the people to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."  This, like the other amendments proposed and adopted at the same time, was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens, but to operate upon the National government alone.  It is now too late to question the correctness of this construction.  As was said by the late Chief Justice, in Twitchell v. The Commonwealth, "the scope and application of these amendments are no longer subjects of discussion here."  They left the authority of the States just where they found it, and added nothing to the already existing powers of the United States.

              The particular amendment now under consideration assumes the existence of the right of the people to assemble for lawful purposes, and protects it against encroachment by Congress.  The right was not created by the amendment; neither was its continuance guaranteed, except as against congressional interference.  For their protection in its enjoyment, therefore, the people must look to the States.  The power for that purpose was originally placed there, and it has never been surrendered to the United States.

              The right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for any thing else connected with the powers or the duties of the national government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and, as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States.  The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.  If it had been alleged in these counts that the object of the defendants was to prevent a meeting for such a purpose, the case would have been within the statute, and within the scope of the sovereignty of the United States.  Such, however, is not the case.  The offence, as stated in the indictment, will be made out, if it be shown that the object of the conspiracy was to prevent a meeting for any lawful purpose whatever.

              The second and tenth counts are equally defective.  The right there specified is that of "bearing arms for a lawful purpose."  This is not a right granted by the Constitution.  Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.  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 The City of New York v. Miln, 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.  


Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 264-65 (1886)

              [State law barred "any body of men, other than the organized militia of the state and the troops of the United States, from associating as a military company and drilling with arms in any city or town of the state"; the Court held:]

              We are next to inquire whether the fifth and sixth sections of article 11 of the Military Code are in violation of the other provisions of the constitution of the United States relied on by the plaintiff in error.  The first of these is the second amendment, which declares:  "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."  We think it clear that the 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.

              But a conclusive answer to the contention that this amendment prohibits the legislation in question lies in the fact that the amendment is a limitation only upon the power of congress and the national government, and not upon that of the state. It was so held by this court in the case of U. S. v. Cruikshank, in which the chief justice, in delivering the judgment of the court, said that the right of the people to keep and bear arms "is not a right granted by the constitution.  Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.  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 . . . ."  


Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535, 538-39 (1894)

              In his motion for a rehearing, however, defendant claimed that the law of the state of Texas forbidding the carrying of weapons, and authorizing the arrest, without warrant, of any person violating such law, under which certain questions arose upon the trial of the case, was in conflict with the second and fourth amendments to the constitution of the United States, one of which provides that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, and the other of which protects the people against unreasonable searches and seizures.

              We have examined the record in vain, however, to find where the defendant was denied the benefit of any of these provisions, and, even if he were, it is well settled that the restrictions of these amendments operate only upon the federal power, and have no reference whatever to proceedings in state courts.  And if the fourteenth amendment limited the power of the states as to such rights, as pertaining to citizens of the United States, we think it was fatal to this claim that it was not set up in the trial court.  


Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275, 280 (1897)

              [The Court concluded that the Thirteenth Amendment didn't bar enforcement of a mariner's contract, on the grounds that the various constitutional rights cannot be read literally and absolutely:]

              . . .  The law is perfectly well settled that the first 10 amendments to the constitution, commonly known as the "Bill of Rights," were not intended to lay down any novel principles of government, but simply to embody certain guaranties and immunities which we had inherited from our English ancestors, and which had, from time immemorial, been subject to certain well-recognized exceptions, arising from the necessities of the case.  In incorporating these principles into the fundamental law, there was no intention of disregarding the exceptions, which continued to be recognized as if they had been formally expressed.

              Thus, the freedom of speech and of the press (article 1) does not permit the publication of libels, blasphemous or indecent articles, or other publications injurious to public morals or private reputation; the right of the people to keep and bear arms (article 2) is not infringed by laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons; the provision that no person shall be twice put in jeopardy (article 5) does not prevent a second trial, if upon the first trial the jury failed to agree, or if the verdict was set aside upon the defendant's motion; . . . .  


United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939)

(the most extensive modern discussion of the Amendment)

              An indictment in the District Court Western District Arkansas, charged that Jack Miller and Frank Layton "did unlawfully, knowingly, wilfully, and feloniously transport in interstate commerce from the town of Claremore in the State of Oklahoma to the town of Siloam Springs in the State of Arkansas a certain firearm, to-wit, a double barrel 12-gauge Stevens shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches in length [contrary to the National Firearms Act] . . . ."

              A duly interposed demurrer alleged:  The National Firearms Act is not a revenue measure but an attempt to usurp police power reserved to the States, and is therefore unconstitutional.  Also, it offends the inhibition of the Second Amendment to the Constitution -- "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  The District Court held that section eleven of the Act violates the Second Amendment.  It accordingly sustained the demurrer and quashed the indictment.

              . . .

              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.  Aymette v. State, 2 Humphreys (Tenn.) 154, 158.

              The Constitution as originally adopted granted to the Congress power -- "To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress."  With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made.  It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.

              The Militia which the States were expected to maintain and train is set in contrast with Troops which they were forbidden to keep without the consent of Congress.  The sentiment of the time strongly disfavored standing armies; the common view was that adequate defense of country and laws could be secured through the Militia -- civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion.

              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.  [Citing further sources, e.g., the Virginia Act of October 1785 providing for a Militia of "all free male persons between the ages of eighteen and fifty years," with certain exceptions.]

              Most if not all of the States have adopted provisions touching the right to keep and bear arms.  Differences in the language employed in these have naturally led to somewhat variant conclusions concerning the scope of the right guaranteed.  But none of them seem to afford any material support for the challenged ruling of the court below.  


Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55, 65 (1980)

              [Lewis was convicted of being a felon in possession, and challenged it on various statutory grounds, on the ground that his prior felony conviction was uncounseled and therefore shouldn't be considered, and on constitutional grounds.  The Court held:]

              The firearm regulatory scheme at issue here is consonant with the concept of equal protection embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment if there is "some `rational basis' for the statutory distinctions made . . . or . . .  they `have some relevance to the purpose for which the classification is made." [fn1]

              Section 1202(a)(1) clearly meets that test. . . .

              [fn1] These legislative restrictions on the use of firearms are neither based upon constitutionally suspect criteria, nor do they trench upon any constitutionally protected liberties.  See United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 178, 59 S.Ct. 816, 818, 83 L.Ed. 1206 (1939) (the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia"); United States v. Three Winchester 30-30 Caliber Lever Action Carbines, 504 F.2d 1288, 1290, n. 5 (CA7 1974); United States v. Johnson, 497 F.2d 548 (CA4 1974); Cody v. United States, 460 F.2d 34 (CA8), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 1010, 93 S.Ct. 454, 34 L.Ed.2d 303 (1972) (the latter three cases holding, respectively, that § 1202(a)(1), § 922(g), and § 922(a)(6) do not violate the Second Amendment).  


United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 264 (1990)

[The question in the case was whether the Fourth Amendment protected foreign citizens on foreign soil from unreasonable searches, or applied only to U.S. soil or U.S. residents.  The majority, per Chief Justice Rehnquist, said:]

              For purposes of this case, therefore, if there were a constitutional violation, it occurred solely in Mexico. . . .  The Fourth Amendment provides:  "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."  That text, by contrast with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, extends its reach only to "the people."

              Contrary to the suggestion of amici curiae that the Framers used this phrase "simply to avoid [an] awkward rhetorical redundancy," "the 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").

              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.  


Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 503 U.S. 833, 848 (1992)

              Neither the Bill of Rights nor the specific practices of States at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment marks the outer limits of the substantive sphere of liberty which the Fourteenth Amendment protects.  See U.S. Const., Amdt. 9.  As the second Justice Harlan recognized:  "[T]he full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution.  This `liberty´ is not a series of isolated points pricked out in terms of the taking of property; the freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to keep and bear arms; the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; and so on.  It is a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints, . . . and which also recognizes, what a reasonable and sensitive judgment must, that certain interests require particularly careful scrutiny of the state needs asserted to justify their abridgment."  Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497 (1961) (Harlan, J., opinion dissenting from dismissal on jurisdictional grounds). [The Harlan quote from Poe v. Ullman is also quoted by the plurality in Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494, 502 (1977).]