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Summary

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.