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Supreme Court Cases
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2010

McDonald v. Chicago

In one of the most significant Second Amendment cases in decades, the Supreme Court took up McDonald v. Chicago to determine if the Amendment applied to states.

Slides

The Case in Brief

History. In the 2008 case D.C. v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms unconnected to militia service, including at home for self-defense. However, the Court had yet to apply that right to state and local governments — known as selective incorporation — when it took up McDonald v. Chicago in 2010.

Case Facts. Otis McDonald and other plaintiffs challenged Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois, laws that severely limited handgun ownership. They argued that the Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment under Heller should also apply to state and local governments, and thus the legislation was unconstitutional.

Majority Opinion. The Court ruled that the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense — guaranteed by the Second Amendment — applies to state and local governments under the 14th Amendment. It did not rule on the constitutionality of the Chicago and Oak Park gun laws, ordering a lower court to rehear the case with the new guidance.

Results. The Court’s ruling in McDonald sparked a wave of litigation, as gun-rights advocates across the country filed suit against various state and local gun laws, arguing that they were unconstitutional. Today, courts are still hearing many of these cases, establishing which restrictions violate the Second Amendment and which do not.

History

In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned a D.C. law that effectively banned handgun ownership in D.C. v. Heller. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms unconnected to militia service, including at home for self-defense. However, the Bill of Rights does not automatically apply to state and local governments. Instead, the Supreme Court must apply these amendments under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment — a process known as selective incorporation. Because of D.C.’s unique status — Congress maintains authority over the District’s local affairs — the Heller ruling applied to the federal government and thus did not incorporate the Second Amendment to the states. While the Court has incorporated most of the Bill of Rights, it had not done so with the Second Amendment when it took up McDonald v. Chicago in 2010.

Case Facts

In 1982, the city of Chicago, Illinois, adopted a strict handgun law, establishing a complex registration process and banning the possession of any unregistered firearms. In effect, this law barred most citizens from owning a handgun in the city.

Following D.C. v. Heller, Otis McDonald, a few fellow residents, and some gun-rights groups sued Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois — a neighboring village with similar handgun restrictions — arguing that these laws violated the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The group claimed that the Heller ruling applied to state and local governments under the Privileges and Immunities Clause and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Furthermore, they argued that Chicago’s law was an unreasonable gun regulation, as it was very similar to the D.C. legislation the Court struck down in Heller

City officials argued that the Court’s decision in Heller limited the federal government, not state or local governments. They claimed that the right to keep and bear arms is not absolute, and thus governments can impose reasonable gun regulations in the interest of public safety. Finally, Chicago officials said incorporating the Second Amendment would create dangerous uncertainty, as the Court would effectively strike down thousands of state and municipal gun laws.

A federal district court and — after appeal — the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Chicago, ruling that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms only protects individuals from federal regulations. McDonald and his fellow residents appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in 2010.  

Majority Opinion

The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self-defense fully applies to state and local governments under the 14th Amendment.

The right to keep and bear arms is among the most fundamental rights and has a deeply rooted tradition in American history. 

A plurality of Justices ruled that states and municipalities can enact reasonable gun restrictions — such as banning felons from owning firearms or preventing people from carrying them in sensitive places like schools.

The Seventh Circuit must rehear this case to determine if the Chicago and Oak Park gun laws at issue unconstitutionally restrict their citizens’ Second Amendment rights.

Dissenting Opinion

The Founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect states from federal encroachment, so the provision does not apply to state and local governments.

The Second Amendment does not meet the Court’s standards for which rights it should incorporate.

Elected legislative bodies are best suited to address the regulation of private firearm use, and federal courts should not strip that power from the legislatures.

Related Cases

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen (2022)

(The Federalist Society)

In June 2022, the Supreme Court issued its decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, broadening its interpretation of the Second Amendment in one of the most consequential gun cases in history. The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and two New York residents challenged a state licensing scheme that requires people to show “proper cause” to receive an unrestricted permit to carry a concealed firearm outside their home. They claimed the law was too strict and violated their constitutional right to self-defense under the Second Amendment. 

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court expanded its understanding of the Second Amendment laid out in Heller. The majority struck down the New York licensing law, ruling that the right to keep and bear arms includes a right to carry a handgun outside the home for self-defense. In addition to throwing into question similar gun permit laws in several other states — known as “may issue” states — the ruling opens the possibility for numerous lawsuits challenging state gun regulations. The decision sparked outrage from gun control groups and Democratic officials, who argue it will lead to more gun violence and endanger Americans. Meanwhile, conservatives and gun-rights organizations tout the ruling as a major win for individual rights.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is this New York permit law too restrictive? Explain your position.
  2. Can you think of any gun regulations this ruling could throw into question?
  3. What is your position on the Court’s decision in Bruen?

Bipartisan Gun Deal

(CNN)

In early June 2022, following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, President Biden delivered a national address, publicly calling on Congress to enact stricter gun regulations. He advocated for sweeping gun reform, including an assault weapons ban, expanding background checks, and repealing federal liability shields for gun manufacturers. The President restated his belief that the Second Amendment is “not absolute,” echoing the dissents of Heller and McDonald. However, while Biden insisted that his proposals were constitutional, many Republican lawmakers argued that they violated Americans’ Second Amendment rights and staunchly opposed the measures. 

On June 8, the House’s narrow Democratic majority passed a massive legislative package including many of the President’s suggested provisions in a largely party-line vote. However, the bill was virtually dead on arrival in the Senate. Yet a handful of Senators from both parties — including Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) — were negotiating to enact a bipartisan gun law. After weeks of talks, the group emerged with a framework, which — after translating it into legislation — the Senate passed with enough support to overcome its 60-vote filibuster threshold. The House swiftly passed the package and sent it to President Biden for his signature. While it lacked most of his proposals, Biden signed the bill into law, hailing it as the most significant federal action on guns in decades. 

See Civil’s initial coverage of Biden’s speech on guns and the Senate’s gun deal framework.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think the Second Amendment is absolute? Why or why not?
  2. Would any of the President’s gun reform proposals lessen gun violence? Explain your position.
  3. Do you approve of the Senate’s bipartisan gun deal? Why or why not?

California Gun Ban Unconstitutional

(The Washington Post)

Following a shooting at a synagogue in San Diego County in 2019, California passed a law barring adults under 21 from buying semiautomatic weapons. On May 8, 2022, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel struck down that law, siding with the Firearms Policy Coalition, which argued the ban infringed on 18 to 20-year-olds’ Second Amendment rights. Judges Ryan Nelson and Kenneth Lee — both Trump appointees — issued the majority opinion, ruling the Second Amendment guarantees young adults’ right to keep and bear arms, including the weapons at issue in this case. Judge Sidney Stein, a Bill Clinton appointee, dissented. However, the panel upheld a requirement for under-21 adults to obtain a hunting license to buy rifles or shotguns.  

Some Democrats have shown concern that the ruling could lead to an uptick in gun violence and throw similar state bans into question. The National Rifle Association has already pointed to the California panel’s decision in its challenge of a Florida law banning long-gun sales to 18 to 20-year-olds. In contrast to many on the Left, Republicans and gun-rights groups champion the decision as a win for under-21 adults’ Second Amendment rights.

See Civil’s initial coverage of the decision here.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are bans like this one effective in reducing gun violence? Explain your position.
  2. Why do you think the panel struck down the under-21 ban but not the hunting license requirement?
  3. Should the Supreme Court take up a case about these laws to determine their constitutionality? Why or why not?

FRQ Practice

After Maryland prosecutors charged John Dalmer Benton with burglary and larceny, a jury found him guilty of burglary but acquitted him of the larceny charge. Facing 10 years in prison, Benton won an appeal because lawyers had unconstitutionally selected the juries that indicted and convicted him. An appeals court returned the case to a lower court, which retried him. This time, indicted on the burglary and larceny charges again, the jury convicted him of both. Benton appealed again, arguing that re-indicting him on the larceny charge after his acquittal amounted to double-jeopardy, prohibited under the Fifth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court had not yet incorporated this provision to the states.

The Maryland Supreme Court upheld Benton’s conviction, ruling that U.S. Supreme Court precedent showed the Constitution’s double jeopardy provision — which prohibits prosecuting a person for the same offense multiple times — did not apply to state criminal proceedings. Benton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 in his favor. The Court held that the double-jeopardy section applied to states under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, incorporating the right. As a result, it overturned Benton’s larceny conviction.

Based on the information given, respond to Parts A, B, and C.

  1. Identify the constitutional clause common to McDonald v. Chicago (2010) and Benton v. Maryland (1969).
  2. Based on the constitutional clause identified in Part A, explain why the facts of Benton v. Maryland led to a similar holding as in McDonald v. Chicago.
  3. Describe a political action that members of the public who agree with the ruling in Benton v. Maryland could take to protect other unincorporated rights.

Important Terms

Selective Incorporation. Under the process of selective incorporation, the Supreme Court applies certain parts of the Bill of Rights to the states through the 14th Amendment.

Privileges and Immunities Clause. The 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” While the Supreme Court has specified some of the “privileges and immunities” included, the phrase still sparks debate over interpretation.

Due Process Clause. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause states that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Since its enactment, the Supreme Court has understood “liberty” to entail a host of rights, including many of the Bill of Rights.