A 5-4 Supreme Court today recognized an individual right to own weaponry under the second amendment to the Constitution.  The Court thus struck down a District of Columbia law that severely limited handgun possession.  District of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290 (U.S. June 26, 2008).

Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas joined.  They held that a proper interpretation of the language breaks the second amendment into a "prefatory" clause and an "operative" clause:

  • Prefatory:  "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,". 
  • Operative:  "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The prefatory part states the purpose behind the right but doesn’t limit it, the Court seems to say, and the operative clause defines the right.  Once you free the definition from limitation by the purpose, you get an individual right rather than a collective one.

Justice Stevens authored the principal dissent, and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Souter joined in it.  They agreed that individuals can enforce the "right of the people" to keep and bear arms but concluded that the right does not protect "the use or possession of firearms for purely civilian purposes."

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