District of Columbia v Heller in 2008: Summary & Decision

Instructor: Janell Blanco
In this lesson we will discuss the case of District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. The lesson will have a summary of the case and will also discuss the decision made by the courts.


One of the more controversial issues in the history of the United States has been the Second Amendment, which is the right to bear arms. How would you feel if one of your rights was taken away from you? Imagine you're a police officer: you're granted the right to carry a gun for your job, but once you take your uniform off, you're not allowed the same rights. This can be seen as little counter-intuitive, can't it? Let's discuss a case in which a police officer was allowed to carry a gun on the job but the laws prohibited from carrying a gun when off-duty.

Summary of District of Columbia v. Heller

The District of Columbia has the following laws that ban handguns:

  • It's a crime to carry an unregistered handgun.
  • Handgun registration is prohibited.
  • Carrying an unlicensed handgun is prohibited

Basically, residents aren't allowed to carry an unregistered handgun and handgun registration is prohibited, unless the handgun was registered prior to 1976. So can a resident lawfully carry a handgun in D.C.?

The answer is yes. Even though the law bans handguns, the police chief in D.C. has the ability to issue handgun licenses that are valid for the year. The person that becomes licensed needs to keep the guns unloaded and disassembled or locked with a trigger lock. The handgun doesn't have to locked or disassembled if they are being used for lawful recreational activities, such as hunting, or are being stored at a business.

Handgun lock

A special police officer in D.C., Dick Heller, applied for a handgun registration in 2008 and was denied. He was authorized to carry a weapon while on duty at the Federal Judicial Center but wanted to be licensed to have a handgun while off duty. Since Heller was denied a license, he filed the lawsuit known as District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.

Dick Heller

Heller claimed that the ban on handguns violated his right to self-defense under the Second Amendment. Heller felt that having the firearm disarmed at home would not provide a functional form of self-defense. Heller first filed his claim with the District Court in D.C.


Heller's case was dismissed by the District Court but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the dismissal and ruled in Heller's favor. The decision by the appellate court stated that the Second Amendment does grant Heller the right to possess a handgun in his home for the purpose of self-defense. Additionally, the court agreed with Heller that by keeping the firearm unloaded, disassembled, or locked is unconstitutional because the weapon could not be used for self-defense if it was kept like this.

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