The Supreme Court has heard only five cases directly related to the Second Amendment. They are U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), Presser v. Illinois (1886), Miller v. Texas (1894), U.S. v. Miller (1939), and Lewis v. U.S. (1980). One the Supreme Court refused to hear, Burton v. Sills (1968), is also mentioned.
U.S. v. Cruikshank involved members of the Ku Klux Klan depriving black victims of their basic rights such as freedom of assembly and to bear arms. The court decided that neither the First nor Second Amendments applied to the states, but were limitations on Congress. Thus the federal government had no power to correct these violations, rather the citizens had to rely on the police power of the states for their protection from private individuals.
This case is often misunderstood or quoted out of context by claiming Cruikshank stated the Second Amendment does not grant a right to keep and bear arms. However, the court also said this about the First Amendment. The court explained that these rights weren't granted or created by the Constitution, they existed prior to the Constitution.
Presser v. Illinois ruled that the states had the right to strictly regulate private military groups and associations. It also reaffirmed the Cruikshank decision that the Second Amendment acts as a limitation upon the federal government and not the states. However Presser also stated that setting the Second Amendment aside, the states could not prohibit the "people from keeping and bearing arms, so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security..."
Of the Second Amendment cases, U.S. v. Miller is the most mis-cited (intentionally and otherwise) by the lower courts, not to mention the news media, textbooks and encyclopedias. Some courts have acknowledged the true holdings of Miller, but then simply disregarded them. Though referenced again below, please don't forget to read how some courts deliberately mis-cite Miller.
U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876)
Cruikshank was the first Second Amendment case to reach the Supreme Court. Cruikshank is occasionally misconstrued as deciding the Second Amendment does not confer an individual right to keep and bear arms.
Among the counts against Cruikshank et. al. were charges to deprive two blacks their First and Second Amendment rights. Regarding the First Amendment charges the court stated:
The right of the people peaceably to assemble for lawful purposes existed long before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. In fact, it is, and always has been, one of the attributes of citizenship under a free government... It is found wherever civilization exists. It was not, therefore, a right granted to the people by the Constitution. The government of the United States when established found it in existence, with the obligation on the part of the States to afford it protection...
The first amendment to the Constitution prohibits Congress from abridging "the right of the people to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." This, like the other amendments proposed and adopted at the same time, was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens, but to operate upon the National government alone...
...For their protection in its enjoyment, therefore, the people must look to the States. The power for that purpose was originally placed there, and it has never been surrendered to the United States.
Similarly regarding the Second Amendment violations the court wrote:
The second and tenth counts are equally defective. The right there specified is that of "bearing arms for a lawful purpose." This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed; but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government, leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights it recognizes, to what is called..."internal police"
In brief, following precedent, the court stated the Bill of Rights only applied as a limitation on the "National government." Individuals could not file charges against other citizens in federal court regarding violations of their constitutional rights. It was up to the states to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens when their rights were abridged by other citizens.
Complete text of U.S. v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875).
Presser v. People of Illinois (1886)
Herman Presser was found guilty of parading a group of armed men without authorization in the state of Illinois. The defendant had tried to claim this was unconstitutional and violated his Second Amendment rights as well. The court ruled the states have the power to control and regulate military bodies, including drilling and parading activities. Though the court stated Second Amendment issues were not involved, it re-affirmed that it applied as a limitation only on the national government. However the court then stated:
It is undoubtedly true that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force or reserve militia of the United States as well as of the States; and, in view of this prerogative of the General Government, as well as of its general powers, the States cannot, even laying the constitutional provision in question out of view [the Second Amendment] prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms, so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security, and disable the people from performing their duty to the General Government.
Thus the Presser court wrote that the right to keep and bear arms existed, independently of the Second Amendment, for "all citizens capable of bearing arms" and the states could not infringe upon this right.
&graphurl=&court=US&case=/data/us/116/252.html"Complete text of Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886).
Miller v. Texas (1894)
Franklin Miller, convicted of murder, on appeal, claimed his Second and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court upholding the conviction, reaffirmed Cruikshank v. U.S. and stated: "And if the fourteenth amendment limited the power of the states as to such rights, as pertaining to citizens of the United States, we think it was fatal to this claim that it was not set up in the trial court." In other words the court wouldn't even consider whether Miller's rights had been violated under the Fourteenth Amendment because he had not filed such a claim in his original trial.
&graphurl=&court=US&case=/data/us/153/535.html"Complete text of Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535 (1894).
U.S. v. Miller (1939)
Frank Layton and Jack Miller were charged with violating the 1934 National Firearms Act, which regulated and taxed the transfer of certain types of firearms, and required the registration of such arms. The Miller court decided the following:
1) The National Firearms Act was not an unconstitutional usurpation of police power reserved to the states.
2) "In the absence of evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length,' which is the subject of regulation and taxation by the National Firearms Act of June 26, 1934, has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, it cannot be said the the Second Amendment to the Federal Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument, or that the statute violates such constitutional provision."
3) "It is not within judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense."
4) "The Second Amendment must be interpreted and applied with a view to its purpose of rendering effective the Militia."
As noted in the Summary section, Miller has often been mis-cited. Note that in the entire text of Miller, neither the words "state militia" nor "National Guard" are to be found.
Regarding item 4) above, the Miller court defined the Militia as the following:
The signification attributed to the term Militia appears from the debates in the Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators. These show plainly enough that the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the district court, giving the defendants a chance to provide evidence that a short-barrelled shotgun could contribute to "the efficiency of a well-regulated militia." Note Miller only required evidence that the weapon contribute to the efficiency of a well-regulated militia. The court never said the defendants had to belong to a well-regulated militia. In other words the Miller case interpreted the Second Amendment to mean one has the right to own militia type weapons.
The defendants had not appeared for their Supreme Court hearing and they had no legal representation as well! In its brief the U.S. government argued the "collective rights" theory. (See GunCite's rebuttal to the U.S. government's brief.)
More importantly please read how the Miller case has been mis-cited by some federal courts and see how some rulings are simply based on judges own feelings, desires, and values rather than the rule of law and valid evidence.
A criticism of the Miller decision itself.
Complete text of U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939).
Lewis v. U.S. (1980)
Title VII of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 forbids the possession of firearms by a convicted felon. Lewis, the petitioner, was convicted of a felony in a 1961 state court "for breaking and entering with intent to commit a misdemeanor". In 1977, in Virginia, Lewis was charged with receiving and possessing a firearm in violation of the above act. Lewis, claimed his latest conviction violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendments because he had no counsel present during his 1961 trial.
The court upheld Lewis' conviction, holding:
(a)...the fact that there are remedies available to a convicted felon - removal of the firearm disability by a qualifying pardon or the Secretary of the Treasury's consent, as specified in the Act, or a challenge to the prior conviction in an appropriate court proceeding - suggests that Congress intended that the defendant clear his status before obtaining a firearm, thereby fulfilling Congress' purpose to keep firearms away from persons classified as potentially irresponsible and dangerous.
(b) The firearm regulatory scheme at issue here is consonant with the concept of equal protection embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, since Congress could rationally conclude that any felony conviction, even an allegedly invalid one, is a sufficient basis on which to prohibit the possession of a firearm. And use of an uncounseled felony conviction as the basis for imposing a civil firearms disability, enforceable by criminal sanction, is not inconsistent with Burgett v. Texas, 389 U.S. 109; United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443; and Loper v. Beto, 405 U.S. 473.
In a footnote the court stated:
These legislative restrictions on the use of firearms are neither based upon constitutionally suspect criteria, nor do they trench upon any constitutionally protected liberties. See United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 178 (1939) (the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have "some reasonable relationship to [445 U.S. 55, 66] the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia");
Note, the court restated the Miller court's focus on the type of firearm.
The court also commented it was customary to deny convicted felons the right to vote, hold union office, or practice medicine.
Complete text of Lewis v. U.S., 445 U.S. 55 (1980).
Burton v. Sills (1985)
From Stephen Halbrook's "That Every Man be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right":
A...striking erosion of the right to possess arms was exemplified in the New Jersey case of Burton v. Sills (1968). It originated when members of sportsman clubs and gun dealers brought an action to declare unconstitutional the state's gun-control law, which imposed restrictive requirements. Conjuring up an image of "political assassinations, killings of enforcement officers, and snipings during riots," the court expressed exaggerated fears of a revolution. The New Jersey Supreme Court restricted the definition of militia to "the active, organized militias of the states," that is, the National Guard. The court's very use of these adjectives to modify the word "militia" ignores the constitutional militia comprised of all persons capable of bearing arms. The Burton opinion simply fails to provide scholarly, historical, and analytical treatment of the subject, as indeed primarily only the antebellum state opinions do provide.
Complete text of Burton v. Sills (1968).