Summary of McDonald v. Chicago
Citation: 561 U.S. 3025 (2010)
Relevant Facts: Otis McDonald, a retired maintenance engineer and resident of Chicago, wanted to purchase a handgun for personal protection in his home. Mr. McDonald had lived in the same Chicago neighborhood for almost forty years, and had grown frustrated with increasing levels of crime, having been the victim of theft or break-ins on several occasions. Already the legal owner of both rifles and shotguns, Mr. McDonald believed he could better protect himself in close quarters with the aid of a handgun. However, the City of Chicago required that all handguns be registered with the city in order for ownership to be legal. At the same time, the City had refused to issue any new permits for almost thirty years. Accordingly, Chicago’s restrictions operated in concert to effectively ban all legal handgun possession and deprived Mr. McDonald of the right to legally own such a weapon. McDonald brought suit, claiming that the near-total ban on handguns deprived him of his right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment. Joining together with other plaintiffs in a case that was eventually joined with other, similar Second Amendment cases, Mr. McDonald’s unsuccessful attempts to overturn the ban were rebuffed in both District Court and the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to clarify whether the Second Amendment applied equally to States and the Federal Government.
Issue: Does the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms create an individual right of citizens to own firearms, and is that right enforceable against the States through incorporation of the Second Amendment through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment? Is the right to keep and bear arms protected by the Privileges and Immunities Clause?
Holding: Yes, the Second Amendment creates an individual rather than collective right that generally guarantees the rights of citizens to legally own guns. The right to keep and bears arms is a right guaranteed to citizens and enforceable against States, incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court declined to reach a consensus on the Privileges and Immunities question, the plurality arguing that such an analysis was necessary when, as here, the Court determined a specific right was protected through by the Bill of Rights as incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Reasoning: Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, and an opinion with regard to the final section, joined in the plurality section by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Kennedy. Starting with historical analysis, Justice Alito explained that the Bill of Rights as conceived limited the authority of the federal government by protecting certain enumerated rights specifically. As originally conceived, those protections only limited the authority of the federal government. However, with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment the Court had held that most of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights had been incorporated to the States through the Due Process Clause. Historically, a variety of factors influenced the determination as to whether a particular right should be incorporated, with most rights eventually afforded that treatment while the Court maintained the doctrine of selective incorporation and addressed each individual liberty guarantee separately. While the Court had never previously held the Second Amendment incorporated, they opted to do so here by citing the fundamental nature of self-defense and necessity of the right to bear arms to guarantee self-protection. The Court also relied on the history of the Fourteenth Amendment and contemporaneous concerns about the right to self-protection as part of the basic guarantee of liberty protected by the Constitution. The majority declined the opportunity to accept a narrower view of the Fourteenth Amendment and incorporation doctrine by refusing to treat the anti-discrimination provisions of the Amendment as the whole of its thrust, instead continuing the tradition of extending other, basic guarantees as originally recognized by the Bill of Rights. Finally, Justice Alito delivered an opinion with regard to the final section. There, in addition to addressing the arguments presented by the dissenters, Justice Alito argued that the Court should decline to entertain the Privileges and Immunities question, regarding that analysis as unnecessary after the Court determined that the right to bear arms was a substantive guarantee under the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Alito also pointed out that it would be unwise to treat the right to bear arms by a different standard than other rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights absent good cause.
Concurrence: Justice Scalia concurred, agreeing with the majority while simultaneously noting his hesitance regarding substantive due process as a general matter. For the rest of his opinion, Justice Scalia argued that the dissenters view was fundamentally misplaced, opting for more subject standards regarding selection of protected liberties while arguing against historical tradition as an interpretive aide. Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment and joined the majority opinion in all but the final section. In his opinion, Justice Thomas argued that the Court should have addressed the Privileges and Immunities question, regarding the right to bear arms as a fundamental right protected by that clause and rendering the more complicated due process question unnecessary. Furthermore, Justice Thomas reiterated his view that the Due Process Clause protects process and not substance, rejecting the general principles of incorporation under which the Court extended the right to bear arms as a limit on State authority.
Dissent: Justice Stevens dissented, agreeing with the majority regarding the privileges and immunities question, disagreeing with their treatment of the Second Amendment and their explanation of incorporation. At the outset of his lengthy opinion Justice Stevens made clear he regarded this as a substantive due process case. While he agreed with the long-standing interpretation of Due Process as having procedural and substantive components, and gave both the history of self-defense and the nature of liberties protected by the Constitution lengthy treatment, he objected to the inherently subjective nature of any standard regarding which rights are covered and suggested that uniformity between state and federal protections was never the goal- nor desirable. Justice Breyer also dissented, and was joined in his opinion by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justice Breyer agreed with Justice Stevens regarding the substantive due process portion of the majority opinion, arguing that the essence of due process protections did not extend so far to as to cover the right to possess firearms in the home for self-defense. Justice Breyer went further, however, to clarify his view that the majority was misplaced regarding incorporation, as nothing in the text and history of the Second Amendment suggested it was so fundamental as to be worthy of protections binding on the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourth amendment. The dissenters also pointed out their disagreement with other, recent Second Amendment cases, reiterating the view that the Constitution did not protect a general right of the people to bear arms, rather only the more traditional view that the Second Amendment protected collective rights necessary to formation and preservation of organized militias.
Conclusion: The Court reiterated that the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms was an individual liberty, and extended those protections by limiting the right of states to prohibit individual firearm ownership. The Court, however, declined to revisit the Privileges and Immunities question, instead resting its holding squarely on due process grounds.