The Right to Bear Arms

In June, the Supreme Court of the United States completed its 2007 term with several significant decisions, one of which, District of Columbia et al. v. Heller (5-4), provided a landmark ruling with regard to the right of American citizens to bear arms.  Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected a narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment as the right of citizens to keep and bear arms only in connection with a “well regulated militia,” as stated in the preface of the Amendment.  Instead, Justice Scalia maintained that the phrase “to keep and bear arms” means that every citizen, whether in the militia or not, could possess in their homes weapons for their personal defense, and further, that the Amendment applies to weapons, such as handguns, that did not exist when the Constitution was written.  In rendering this decision, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a law banning handguns in the District of Columbia. 

 Legal analysts and commentators were quick to point out that the decision was not likely to bring about dramatic changes in gun laws in most jurisdictions, particularly since the Court explicitly stated that certain restrictions were unaffected.  For example, the Court said that the Amendment only pertains to weapons in “common use” and not “unusual weapons,” such as machine guns.  Moreover, Justice Scalia qualified the majority opinion by saying that it protected only “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home,” so that prohibitions on firearms possession by felons and the mentally ill were not deemed unconstitutional by this ruling, nor are laws prohibiting possession of firearms in certain places, such as schools and government buildings.  And, because the case originated in the District of Columbia, the decision affected only federal law; the Court did not explicitly address the question of if or how their interpretation of the Second Amendment applies to state and local jurisdictions (image from allamericanpatriots).

 This latter question may get answered soon, since immediately following the Court’s decision in Heller a lawsuit was filed in Chicago challenging that city’s similarly restrictive gun law.  Another suit, filed in San Francisco the day after the Heller decision was handed down, challenges a law there banning handguns in public housing developments. So while legal analysts were claiming that the Heller decision is important though largely symbolic, I couldn’t help but question who gains and who is most likely to lose as a result of this decision, given the new legal challenges filed already in its wake.

 I was struck, for example, by comments that the Heller ruling will most likely affect gun control laws only in major urban areas.  It is mostly municipal governments, after all, that have enacted laws like the one in DC because of the high incidence of gun violence in many urban neighborhoods. And some commentators remarked that the gun restrictions were not enforced in these neighborhoods anyway, so the Heller ruling would probably have no impact, one way or another, on gun violence there.  I came away with the sense that what was really being said is that these areas – and by extension, their residents, who happen to be disproportionately poor and people of color – are expendable: Just let them all have guns and they can shoot it out.  To me, there are strong undertones of abandoning neighborhoods perceived as “not worth saving,” areas where “law-abiding, responsible citizens” don’t live or wouldn’t go to anyway. 

 Perhaps I am reading too much into these comments, but I think it is worth remembering that all such decisions, by the Supreme Court and by policy makers, almost always have differential effects on different groups of people – with some benefiting and others losing – even though they are promulgated as affecting everyone equally.  There is considerable debate, for instance, as to whether gun control laws really do reduce violent crime. In fact, there are researchers who argue that potential crime victims who have guns may deter criminals.  Yet, I cannot help but think of a recent case in Houston, Texas, in which a white man, Joe Horn, shot and killed two Hispanic men, whom he saw breaking into his neighbor’s home. Horn mistakenly identified the men as “black” when he phoned a 911 dispatcher about the break-in, telling the operator he was going to shoot the men, that he was going to kill them, that he was not going to let them “get away with it.” Texas law permits the use of deadly force to protect property, and a grand jury refused to indict Horn.  But some observers questioned whether the grand jury – described as a “sea of white faces” – would have come to the same decision if Mr. Horn were black. The Supreme Court has now given citizens the right to bear arms to protect themselves and their “hearth and home,” but how will that right be implemented in practice? There has historically been a wide disparity between the written law and the law “in action,” with  the poor and people of color usually being on the losing side when it comes to how laws are applied.            

Supporters of the DC handgun ban argued that it was correlated with a reduction of homicides in that city. Although some researchers dispute this finding, one may legitimately ask, who is most likely to die from a firearm homicide?  According to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), the answer is young black males.  Statistics compiled by the CDF show that the chance of a black male being killed by a firearm before his 30th birthday are 1 in 72; a white male had a 1 in 344 chance.  The CDF reports that black children and teens are more likely than white children and teens to be victims of firearm homicide, and the firearm death rate for black males, 15-19 years old, is more than four times greater than the firearm death rate for white males, 15-19 years old (image from cinematical).

 It is still too early to determine what impact the Heller decision will have, particularly in terms of challenges to other municipal gun control laws and death rates.  But taking legal history into account, I am not optimistic that residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are going to benefit this time around either.




  1. Muriel Minnie Mae

    I think it is worth remembering that all such decisions, by the Supreme Court and by policy makers, almost always have differential effects on different groups of people – with some benefiting and others losing – even though they are promulgated as affecting everyone equally.

    I think everyone loses when it comes to this SCOTUS decision. Though I’m not surprised the Court ruled this way, I’m disgusted.

    It my belief firearms should NOT be manufactured nor should bullets. Firearms serve no useful purpose.

    I live in a rural area where everyone, it seems, has at least one firearm. I listen to the pop, pop, pop routinely. There is little I can do about my neighbors owning guns but it makes me afraid of each of them. Any one of them could come out of their house, guns blazing and end my life, the life of a family member, or another neighbor.

    Now it seems there will be more guns available. It makes me want to move to a country where gun ownership is banned.

  2. George Lyon

    Gun control has definite racist roots. The slave codes prohibited slaves from owning guns and the Jim Crow laws after the civil war disarmed blacks, enabling their subjugation. Gun control in urban areas disarms the victims. Your shoot it out analogy has slight merit in that Heller gives the victims the chance to shoot back, rather than just die quietly. Which would you prefer?

  3. Claire Renzetti Author

    Thanks for your comment, Muriel Minnie Mae. When I raise objections to the widespread availability of guns in this country, I am often told that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The fact is, however, that people with guns kill people, often children. I share your concern that now more guns will be available and even jurisdictions that currently have gun restrictions may weaken or rescind them.

  4. Claire Renzetti Author

    Your points are well taken, George. Nevertheless, I remain concerned about the wide availability of guns in this country and the consequences of that. The CDC reports that handguns in homes are most often used for suicide, not self defense, and that children who live in homes where there are handguns are at high risk of accidental death. I guess in response to your question about my preferences, I would say that I prefer that no one has guns. Very pie-in-the-sky thinking, I know, but my preference nonetheless.

  5. Joe

    Claire’s point is made stronger by the reality in places like Canada and numerous European countries where handguns are restricted. Relatively few people die from guns there, and you do not need a handgun in the cities to protect yourself even from criminals. We need to back up and start over on gun control.

  6. curious

    In principle reducing the “wide availability of guns” is a desirable goal. However, as a practical matter it would be the current white racist capitalist police state that would enforce the reduction in availability of fire arms. The War on Guns would follow the exact same logic as the War on Drugs – a war on poor people of color, with ravaged communities and millions in prisons.

    In response to Admin, even more important than the lack of firearms in Canada and Europe is the presence of an actually existing welfare state where people are as often driven to desperation by grinding poverty. The war on guns will work the same as the war on drugs. Building a social safety net of housing, health care and access to education for everyone would remove the conditions the generate the largest % of violence in the first place.

  7. George Lyon

    The suggestion that handguns in the home are used more for suicide than self defense is just plain wrong and if it has any merit is based on actually killing the intruder. I’d love a cite to the study involved. In most of the cases, showing the weapon resolves the issue. As to kids and guns, kids and gun owners need to be educated on safe handling and storage of firearms, but the stats show the incidence of accidental shooting of young kids has declined steadily since the 50s even though the number of guns have increased.

  8. Claire Renzetti Author

    George, the CDC compiles statistics on the number of firearm deaths in the US each year. Their most recent report indicates that about 55% of firearm deaths are suicides. Among white children and teens, firearm deaths are most likely to be suicides, but among black children and teens, firearm deaths are most likely homicides. You can access the CDC report at

  9. Claire Renzetti Author

    Curious, I agree that reducing gun violence, particularly in urban, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, requires far more than simply reducing the availability of guns, and building a real and strong social safety net encompasses all the areas you cite is an essential component.

  10. George Lyon

    Thanks. The cite is helpful and I am enjoying our dialogue. However, what the study results do not show is the incidence of firearms being used for defensive purposes. There is a continuum of actions one can take with a firearm starting with saying “I have a gun,” and continuing with drawing down on the assailant, shooting at the assailant, etc. The CDC stats do not show this. Actual deaths to assailants in defensive situations do not happen very often and that actually is good. The purpose is not to kill the attacker but to stop the threat. Once the threat is stopped, use of deadly force is unlawful.

    Use of firearms to commit suicide is extremely troubling to me. However, it does not appear correlated with gun ownership. For example, Japan has a much higher suicide rate than the US but virtually no private ownership of firearms. Canada’s suicide rate is approximately that of the US, but there is much less use of guns to commit suicide. I posit the hypothesis that easy availability of guns does increase the use of guns for suicide, but does not increase the overall incidence of suicide. In other words, someone who is suicidal will find a way to take his life. I think we would better fight suicide by dealing with the cause rather than the instrument.

  11. Claire Renzetti Author

    Hi, Jamilia. Thanks for your query. I do not know the identities of the children in either of the photos that accompany this post. I chose the photos because of their poignancy and relevance to the post’s content. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

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