When the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, it was the first time the Court had considered the meaning of the Second Amendment in 69 years.
In the previous case, U.S. v. Miller (1939), the Court noted: In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a [sawed-off shotgun] at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly, it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense. This reaffirmed the “collective right” interpretation of the Amendment that federal courts had taken since 1791.
In fact, no federal appellate court had adopted an “individual right” interpretation of the Amendment until the 2003 case of U.S. v. Emerson. Yet in the Heller case a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The ruling overturned a longstanding ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. It was the first time in history that a gun control law had been struck down on Second Amendment grounds.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, made an important qualification, however. “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited,” he stated. “The Court s opinion should not be taken to castdoubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms byfelons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Two years later, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.