McDonald v. City of Chicago, 2010 (5-4 decision)

Justice Alito wrote the opinion of the Court:

Two years ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller, we held that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense, and we struck down a District of Columbia law that banned the possession of handguns in the home. The city of Chicago (City) and the village of Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, have laws that are similar to the District of Columbia’s, but Chicago and Oak Park argue that their laws are constitutional because the Second Amendment has no application to the States. We have previously held that most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply with full force to both the Federal Government and the States. Applying the standard that is well established in our case law, we hold that the Second Amendment right is fully applicable to the States.

Otis McDonald, Adam Orlov, Colleen Lawson, and David Lawson (Chicago petitioners) are Chicago residents who would like to keep handguns in their homes for self-defense but are prohibited from doing so by Chicago’s firearms laws. A City ordinance provides that “[n]o person shall … possess … any firearm unless such person is the holder of a valid registration certificate for such firearm.” The Code then prohibits registration of most handguns, thus effectively banning handgun possession by almost all private citizens who reside in the City….

Chicago enacted its handgun ban to protect its residents “from the loss of property and injury or death from firearms.” The Chicago petitioners and their amici, however, argue that the handgun ban has left them vulnerable to criminals. Chicago Police Department statistics, we are told, reveal that the City’s handgun murder rate has actually increased since the ban was enacted and that Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country and rates of other violent crimes that exceed the average in comparable cities.

Several of the Chicago petitioners have been the targets of threats and violence. For instance, Otis McDonald, who is in his late seventies, lives in a high-crime neighborhood. He is a community activist involved with alternative policing strategies, and his efforts to improve his neighborhood have subjected him to violent threats from drug dealers….

After our decision in Heller, the Chicago petitioners and two groups filed suit against the City in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. They sought a declaration that the handgun ban and several related Chicago ordinances violate the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution….




Petitioners argue that the Chicago and Oak Park laws violate the right to keep and bear arms for two reasons. Petitioners’ primary submission is that this right is among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” and that the narrow interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause adopted in the Slaughter-House Cases, supra, should now be rejected. As a secondary argument, petitioners contend that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause “incorporates” the Second Amendment right.

Chicago and Oak Park (municipal respondents) maintain that a right set out in the Bill of Rights applies to the States only if that right is an indispensable attribute of any ” ‘civilized’ ” legal system. If it is possible to imagine a civilized country that does not recognize the right, the municipal respondents tell us, then that right is not protected by due process.  And since there are civilized countries that ban or strictly regulate the private possession of handguns, the municipal respondents maintain that due process does not preclude such measures. In light of the parties’ far-reaching arguments, we begin by recounting this Court’s analysis over the years of the relationship between the provisions of the Bill of Rights and the States.


The Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, originally applied only to the Federal Government….

The constitutional Amendments adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War fundamentally altered our country’s federal system. The provision at issue in this case, §1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, provides, among other things, that a State may not abridge “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” or deprive “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Four years after the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, this Court was asked to interpret the Amendment’s reference to “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The Slaughter-House Cases, supra, involved challenges to a Louisiana law permitting the creation of a state-sanctioned monopoly on the butchering of animals within the city of New Orleans. Justice Samuel Miller’s opinion for the Court concluded that the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects only those rights “which owe their existence to the Federal government, its National character, its Constitution, or its laws.” The Court held that other fundamental rights–rights that predated the creation of the Federal Government and that “the State governments were created to establish and secure”–were not protected by the Clause.

In drawing a sharp distinction between the rights of federal and state citizenship, the Court relied on two principal arguments. First, the Court emphasized that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause spoke of “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” and the Court contrasted this phrasing with the wording in the first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment and in the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, both of which refer to state citizenship. Second, the Court stated that a contrary reading would “radically chang[e] the whole theory of the relations of the State and Federal governments to each other and of both these governments to the people,” and the Court refused to conclude that such a change had been made “in the absence of language which expresses such a purpose too clearly to admit of doubt.” Finding the phrase “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” lacking by this high standard, the Court reasoned that the phrase must mean something more limited.

Under the Court’s narrow reading, the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects such things as the right “to come to the seat of government to assert any claim [a citizen] may have upon that government, to transact any business he may have with it, to seek its protection, to share its offices, to engage in administering its functions … [and to] become a citizen of any State of the Union by a bona fide residence therein, with the same rights as other citizens of that State.”

Finding no constitutional protection against state intrusion of the kind envisioned by the Louisiana statute, the Court upheld the statute. Four Justices dissented. Justice Field, joined by Chief Justice Chase and Justices Swayne and Bradley, criticized the majority for reducing the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause to “a vain and idle enactment, which accomplished nothing, and most unnecessarily excited Congress and the people on its passage.” Justice Field opined that the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects rights that are “in their nature … fundamental,” including the right of every man to pursue his profession without the imposition of unequal or discriminatory restrictions. Justice Bradley’s dissent observed that “we are not bound to resort to implication … to find an authoritative declaration of some of the most important privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. It is in the Constitution itself.” Justice Bradley would have construed the Privileges or Immunities Clause to include those rights enumerated in the Constitution as well as some unenumerated rights. Justice Swayne described the majority’s narrow reading of the Privileges or Immunities Clause as “turn[ing] … what was meant for bread into a stone.”

Today, many legal scholars dispute the correctness of the narrow Slaughter-House interpretation….

Three years after the decision in the Slaughter-House Cases, the Court decided Cruikshank, the first of the three 19th-century cases on which the Seventh Circuit relied…..The Court wrote that the right of bearing arms for a lawful purpose “is not a right granted by the Constitution” and is not “in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.” “The second amendment,” the Court continued, “declares that it shall not be infringed; but this … means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress.” “Our later decisions in Presser v. Illinois (1886), and Miller v. Texas (1894), reaffirmed that the Second Amendment applies only to the Federal Government.”


In petitioners’ view, the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects all of the rights set out in the Bill of Rights, as well as some others, but petitioners are unable to identify the Clause’s full scope. Nor is there any consensus on that question among the scholars who agree that the Slaughter-House Cases’ interpretation is flawed.

We see no need to reconsider that interpretation here. For many decades, the question of the rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state infringement has been analyzed under the Due Process Clause of that Amendment and not under the Privileges or Immunities Clause. We therefore decline to disturb the Slaughter-House holding.

At the same time, however, this Court’s decisions in Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller do not preclude us from considering whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right binding on the States. None of those cases “engage[d] in the sort of Fourteenth Amendment inquiry required by our later cases.” As explained more fully below, Cruikshank, Presser, and Miller all preceded the era in which the Court began the process of “selective incorporation” under the Due Process Clause, and we have never previously addressed the question whether the right to keep and bear arms applies to the States under that theory….


While Justice Black’s [total incorporation] theory was never adopted, the Court eventually moved in that direction by initiating what has been called a process of “selective incorporation,” i.e., the Court began to hold that the Due Process Clause fully incorporates particular rights contained in the first eight Amendments.

The decisions during this time abandoned three of the previously noted characteristics of the earlier period. The Court made it clear that the governing standard is not whether any “civilized system [can] be imagined that would not accord the particular protection.” Instead, the Court inquired whether a particular Bill of Rights guarantee is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty and system of justice.

The Court also shed any reluctance to hold that rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights met the requirements for protection under the Due Process Clause. The Court eventually incorporated almost all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights. Only a handful of the Bill of Rights protections remain unincorporated.

Finally, the Court abandoned “the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the States only a watered-down, subjective version of the individual guarantees of the Bill of Rights,” stating that it would be “incongruous” to apply different standards “depending on whether the claim was asserted in a state or federal court.” Instead, the Court decisively held that incorporated Bill of Rights protections “are all to be enforced against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment according to the same standards that protect those personal rights against federal encroachment.”

Employing this approach, the Court overruled earlier decisions in which it had held that particular Bill of Rights guarantees or remedies did not apply to the States.


With this framework in mind, we now turn directly to the question whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated in the concept of due process. In answering that question, as just explained, we must decide whether the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty, or as we have said in a related context, whether this right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”


Our decision in Heller points unmistakably to the answer. Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day, and in Heller, we held that individual self-defense is “the central component” of the Second Amendment right. Explaining that “the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute” in the home, we found that this right applies to handguns because they are “the most preferred firearm in the nation to ‘keep’ and use for protection of one’s home and family.”

Heller makes it clear that this right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition….”

As we noted in Heller, King George III’s attempt to disarm the colonists in the 1760’s and 1770’s “provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms.”  The right to keep and bear arms was considered no less fundamental by those who drafted and ratified the Bill of Rights…. This understanding persisted in the years immediately following the ratification of the Bill of Rights….

In debating the Fourteenth Amendment, the 39th Congress referred to the right to keep and bear arms as a fundamental right deserving of protection….The right to keep and bear arms was also widely protected by state constitutions at the time when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified….

In sum, it is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty….


Municipal respondents’ remaining arguments are at war with our central holding in Heller: that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home. Municipal respondents, in effect, ask us to treat the right recognized in Heller as a second-class right, subject to an entirely different body of rules than the other Bill of Rights guarantees that we have held to be incorporated into the Due Process Clause.

Municipal respondents’ main argument is nothing less than a plea to disregard 50 years of incorporation precedent and return (presumably for this case only) to a bygone era. Municipal respondents submit that the Due Process Clause protects only those rights ” ‘recognized by all temperate and civilized governments, from a deep and universal sense of [their] justice.’ ” According to municipal respondents, if it is possible to imagine any civilized legal system that does not recognize a particular right, then the Due Process Clause does not make that right binding on the States. Therefore, the municipal respondents continue, because such countries as England, Canada, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand either ban or severely limit handgun ownership, it must follow that no right to possess such weapons is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

This line of argument is, of course, inconsistent with the long-established standard we apply in incorporation cases. And the present-day implications of municipal respondents’ argument are stunning. For example, many of the rights that our Bill of Rights provides for persons accused of criminal offenses are virtually unique to this country. If our understanding of the right to a jury trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to counsel were necessary attributes of any civilized country, it would follow that the United States is the only civilized Nation in the world.

Municipal respondents attempt to salvage their position by suggesting that their argument applies only to substantive as opposed to procedural rights. But even in this trimmed form, municipal respondents’ argument flies in the face of more than a half-century of precedent. For example, in Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing (1947), the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Yet several of the countries that municipal respondents recognize as civilized have established state churches. If we were to adopt municipal respondents’ theory, all of this Court’s Establishment Clause precedents involving actions taken by state and local governments would go by the boards….

Unless we turn back the clock or adopt a special incorporation test applicable only to the Second Amendment, municipal respondents’ argument must be rejected. Under our precedents, if a Bill of Rights guarantee is fundamental from an American perspective, then, unless stare decisis counsels otherwise, that guarantee is fully binding on the States….

We therefore hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right recognized in Heller. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.