Gun rights are an extremely contentious issue in the United States, so there have been a lot of US Supreme Court gun cases. Gun rights advocates typically use the Second Amendment to argue that the right to possess firearms for self-defense is constitutionally protected. However, the Second Amendment was not always interpreted that way. This list contains the most important Supreme Court cases about guns and explains how the high court interpreted the Second Amendment throughout the history of the United States.
Many of these Supreme Court cases about guns are complex because they deal with issues other than the right to own a gun. The most important things you should know about each case are detailed below. Consider them, and vote up the rulings about gun rights from the Supreme Court that had the greatest impact on gun legislation.
United States v. Cruikshank
- Year: 1875
- What it did: Overturned the convictions of white civilians who had attacked and disarmed a group of black civilians who were organizing politically.
- How people reacted: This ruling opened the door for racist groups like the KKK to suppress the political power of black civilians, who had no way to defend themselves against the violent threats, since the government would not protect their right to bear arms.
This case dealt with a racist attack that occurred in Louisiana. Black Republican civilians had gathered at a courthouse as a political protest when they were attacked by armed white Democrats. Over 100 black protesters were killed. The attackers were convicted of federal crimes which included violating the victims' Second Amendment rights. Cruikshank declared that the Second Amendment only prevents the federal government from infringing on a citizen's right to bear arms.
So, according to this court case, only an agent of the federal government can violate your right to bear arms. States and private citizens are not held to the same standards, which is why states can regulate their own gun laws. So when the attackers took away the protesters' guns, they were stealing, but not infringing on their right to bear arms. Since the attackers were only charged with federal crimes for violating the protesters' rights (not any state crimes such as murder or robbery), the attackers' convictions were overturned and they walked free.
Presser v. Illinois
- Year: 1886
- What it did: Upheld the conviction of a man who possessed a firearm as a member of a militia group that was not authorized by the state of Illinois.
- How people reacted: At the time it was argued, this case was not thought of in terms of gun rights advocates versus gun control advocates. Presser would be cited in later decisions, but eventually became obsolete because of new rulings.
The ruling in this case was essentially the same as the Cruikshank ruling: the Constitution only forbids the federal government from infringing on people's right to bear arms. It leaves open the door for states to regulate civilian firearm possession. The Court did say, though, that states cannot regulate firearm possession so extensively that there is no longer an armed militia.
United States v. Miller
- Year: 1939
- What it did: Upheld the 1934 National Firearms Act, which required that all automatic firearms, short-barreled rifles, and shotguns be registered and required their owners to pay a tax.
- How people reacted: Advocates of stricter gun safety laws used this ruling to pass more restrictions on gun ownership. Gun rights advocates, though, have also used the ruling to argue that citizens have a constitutional right to own military-style weapons.
The Miller decision used a narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment: that the right to bear arms was only protected when citizens were partaking in the state-sanctioned militia. The case concerned Jack Miller, who was charged with violating the 1934 NFA when he transported a shotgun across state lines. Miller claimed the NFA violated his right to bear arms and was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court disagreed, because the Second Amendment only guarantees the right to bear arms in the context of a militia, and the weapon Miller was caught with would not be useful in a militia.
Caetano v. Massachusettes
- Year: 2016
- What it did: Overturned the conviction of a woman who carried a stun gun for self-defense.
- How people reacted: The prosecutor and judge in Caetano's criminal case agreed that Caetano should be exonerated from the charges brought against her. However, the statute used to convict her initially remains on the books in Massachusetts.
This case isn't actually about firearms, but it is about the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment can apply to weapons other than those that were available at the time the Constitution was written. This ruling has cast doubt over whether states can ban tasers and other types of weapons which are not firearms.