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Federal Court Cases Regarding The Second Amendment

Thursday, July 29, 1999

U.S. Supreme Court Cases

United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). This was the first case in which the Supreme Court had the opportunity to interpret the Second Amendment. The Court recognized that the right of the people to keep and bear arms was a right which existed prior to the Constitution when it stated that such a right "is not a right granted by the Constitution...[n]either is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence." The indictment in Cruikshank charged, inter alia, a conspiracy by Klansmen to prevent blacks from exercising their civil rights, including the bearing of arms for lawful purposes. The Court held, however, that because the right to keep and bear arms existed independent of the Constitution, and the Second Amendment guaranteed only that the right shall not be infringed by Congress, the federal government had no power to punish a violation of the right by a private individual; rather, citizens had "to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens" of their right to keep and bear arms to the police power of the state.

Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1886). Although the Supreme Court affirmed the holding in Cruikshank that the Second Amendment, standing alone, applied only to action by the federal government, it nonetheless found the states without power to infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms, holding that "the States cannot, even laying the constitutional provision in question out of view, prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms, as so 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."

Presser, moreover, plainly suggested that the Second Amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment and thus that a state cannot forbid individuals to keep and bear arms. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the statutory scheme the Court had before it.

The statute under which Presser was convicted did not forbid individuals to keep and bear arms but rather forbade "bodies of men to associate together as military organizations, or to drill or parade with arms in cities and towns unless authorized by law..." Thus, the Court concluded that the statute did not infringe the right to keep and bear arms.

The Court, however, went on to discuss the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, noting that" [i]t is only the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States that the clause relied on was intended to protect." As the Court had already held that the substantive right to keep and bear arms was not infringed by the Illinois statute since that statue did not prohibit the keeping and bearing of arms but rather prohibited military-like exercises by armed men, the Court concluded that it did not need to address the question of whether the state law violated the Second Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535 (1894). In this case, the Court confirmed that it had never addressed the issue of the Second Amendment applying to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. This case remains the last word on this subject by the Court.

Miller challenged a Texas statute on the bearing of pistols as violative of the Second, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. But he asserted these arguments for the first time after his conviction had been affirmed by a state appellate court. Reiterating Cruikshank and Presser, the Supreme Court first found that the Second and Fourth Amendments, of themselves, did not limit state action. The Court then turned to the claim that the Texas statute violated the rights to bear arms and against warrantless searches as incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment. But because the Court would not hear objections not made in a timely fashion, the Court refused to consider Miller`s contentions.

Thus, rather than reject incorporation of the Second and Fourth Amendments in the Fourteenth, the Supreme Court merely refused to decide the defendant`s claim because its powers of adjudication were limited to the review of errors timely assigned in the trial court. The Court left open the possibility that the right to keep and beararms and freedom from warrantless searches would apply to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.

U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). This is the only case in which the Supreme Court has had the opportunity to apply the Second Amendment to a federal firearms statute. The Court, however, carefully avoided making an unconditional decision regarding the statute`s constitutionality; it instead devised a test by which to measure the constitutionality of statutes relating to firearms and remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing (the trial court had held that Section 11 of the National Firearms Act was unconstitutional). The Court remanded the case because it had concluded that:

  • In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" 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.

Thus, for the keeping and bearing of a firearm to be constitutionally protected, the firearm should be a militia-type arm.1

The case also made clear that the militia consisted of "all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense" and that "when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time."2 In setting forth this definition of the militia, the Court implicitly rejected the view that the Second Amendment guarantees a right only to those individuals who are members of the militia. Had the Court viewed the Second Amendment as guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms only to "all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense," it would certainly have discussed whether, on remand, there should also be evidence that the defendants met the qualifications for inclusion in the militia, much as it did with regard to the militia use of a short-barrelled shotgun.

Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 95 (1980). Lewis recognized--in summarizing the holding of Miller, supra, as "the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have `some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia`" (emphasis added)--thatMiller had focused upon the type of firearm. Further, Lewis was concerned only with whether the provision of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 which prohibits the possession of firearms by convicted felons (codified in 18 U.S.C.922(g) in 1986) violated the Second Amendment. Thus, since convicted felons historically were and are subject to the loss of numerous fundamental rights of citizenship--including the right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries--it was not erroneous for the Court to have concluded that laws prohibiting the possession of firearms by a convicted felon "are neither based upon constitutionally suspect criteria, nor do they trench upon any constitutionally protected liberties."

United States v. Verdugo-Urquirdez, 110 S. Ct. 3039 (1990). This case involved the meaning of the term "the people" in the Fourth Amendment. The Court unanimously held that the term "the people" in the Second Amendment had the same meaning as in the Preamble to the Constitution and in the First, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments, i.e., that "the people" means at least all citizens and legal aliens while in the United States. This case thus resolves any doubt that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right.

U.S. Courts of Appeals Cases 3

U.S. v. Emerson, No. 99-10331 (Fifth Circuit, 1999) Emerson had been indicted for possessing a firearm while under a certain kind of restraining order, a violation of federal law [18 U.S.C. 922(g)(8)]. The trial court quashed the indictment on Second and Fifth Amendment grounds, finding that Emerson`s right to arms had been restricted by a mere "boilerplate state court divorce order" and "an obscure, highly technical statute with no mens rea (criminal intent) requirement."

The appeals court disagreed with those particular findings and stated that prohibitions such as affected Emerson are permissable when they are "limited, narrowly tailored specific exceptions or restrictions for particular cases that are reasonable and not inconsistent with the right of Americans generally to individually keep and bear their private arms as historically understood in this country."

The court agreed with the trial court that the right to arms is an individually-held right, however. "All of the evidence indicates that the Second Amendment, like other parts of the Bill of Rights, applies to and protects individual Americans," the court stated. "We find that the history of the Second Amendment reinforces the plain meaning of its text, namely that it protects individual Americans in their right to keep and bear arms....We reject the collective rights and sophisticated collective rights models for interpreting the Second Amendment.

U.S. v. Nelson, 859 F.2d 1318 (8th Cir. 1988). This case is not a firearms case; it involves the federal switchblade knife act. Based on the holding in U.S. v Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 553(1876), that the right to keep and bear arms "is not a right granted by the Constitution," the Eighth Circuit concluded that the right is not fundamental. Of course, the statement in Cruikshank--a case which involved the theft of firearms by private citizens from other private citizens--simply meant that the right was not created by the Constitution, but that it preexisted the Constitution and that the Second Amendment was "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 the state criminal laws.

Moreover, the Eighth Circuit`s one paragraph opinion cited Miller, Oakes, infra, and Warin, infra, without any explanation, in holding that the Second Amendment has been analyzed "purely in terms of protecting state militias, rather than individual rights." While this statement is true, it certainly does not mean that Miller rejected the conclusion that an individual right was protected. Thus, the Eighth Circuit did not err in concluding that it was important that "Nelson has made no arguments that the Act would impair any state militia . . . . "

U.S. v. Cody, 460 F.2d 34 (8th Cir. 1972). This case involved the making of a false statement by a convicted felon in connection with the purchase of a firearm. After citing Miller for the propositions that "the Second Amendment is not an absolute bar to congressional regulation of the use or possession of firearms" and that the "Second Amendment`s guarantee extends only to use or possession which `has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia,`" the court held that there was "no evidence that the prohibition of 922(a)(6) obstructs the maintenance of a well-regulated militia." Thus, the court acknowledged that the Second Amendment would be a bar to some congressional regulation of the use or possession of firearms and recognized that Miller required the introduction of evidence which showed a militia use for the firearm involved.

U.S. v. Decker, 446 F.2d 164 (8th Cir. 1971). Like Synnes, infra, the court here held that the defendant could "present . . . evidence indicating a conflict" between the statute at issue and the Second Amendment. Since he failed to do so, the court declined to hold that the record-keeping requirements of the Gun Control Act of 1968 violated the Second Amendment. As withSynnes, the court once again implicitly recognized that the right guaranteed belonged to individuals.

U.S. v. Synnes, 438 F.2d 764 (8th Cir. 1971), vacated on other grounds, 404 U.S. 1009 (1972). This is another case involving possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. In holding that 18 U.S.C. App. Section 1202(a) (reenacted in 18 U.S.C. 922(g) in 1986) did not infringe the Second Amendment, the court held (based upon its partially erroneous view of Miller) that there needed to be evidence that the statute impaired the maintenance of a well-regulated militia. As there was "no showing that prohibiting possession of firearms by felons obstructs the maintenance of a `well regulated militia,`" the court saw "no conflict" between 1202(a) and the Second Amendment. While Miller focused on the need to introduce evidence that the firearm had a militia use, Synnes at least recognized the relevance of a militia nexus. There was a clear recognition, moreover, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right.

Gilbert Equipment Co., Inc. v. Higgins, 709 F. Supp. 1071(S.D. Ala. 1989), aff`d, 894 F.2d 412 (11th Cir. 1990) (mem). The court held that the Second Amendment "guarantees to all Americans` the right to keep and bear arms`. . ."

U.S. v. Oakes, 564 F.2d 384 (1Oth Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 435 U.S. 926 (1978). Although the court recognized the requirement of Miller that the defendant show that the firearm in question have a "connection to the militia," the court concluded, without any explanation of how it reached the conclusion, that the mere fact that the defendant was a member of the Kansas militia would not establish that connection. In light of the fact that Miller (which defines the militia as including "all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense") saw no relevance in the status of a defendant with respect to the militia, but instead focused upon the firearm itself, this conclusion is not without basis.

U.S. v. Swinton, 521 F.2d 1255 (10th Cir. 1975). In the context of interpreting the meaning of the phrase "engaging in the business of dealing in firearms" in 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(1), the court noted, in dicta, merely that "there is no absolute constitutional right of an individual to possess a firearm." Emphasis added. Clearly, therefore, the court recognized that the right is an individual one, albeit not an absolute one.

U.S. v. Johnson, 497 F.2d 548 (4th Cir. 1974). This is one of the three court of appeals cases which uses the term "collective right." The entire opinion, however, is one sentence, which states that the Second Amendment "only confers a collective right of keeping and bearing arms which must bear a `reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia`."4As authority for this statement, the court cites Miller and Cody v. U.S., supra. Yet, as the Supreme Court in Lewis, supra, made clear, Miller held that it is the firearm itself, not the act of keeping and bearing the firearm, which must have a "reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia." The court did, however, recognize that Miller required evidence of the militia nexus. Moreover, the particular provision at issue in Johnson concerned the interstate transportation of a firearm by convicted felons, a class of persons which historically has suffered the loss of numerous rights (including exclusion from the militia) accorded other citizens.

U.S. v Bowdach, 414 F. Supp. 1346 (D.S. Fla 1976), aff`d, 561 F.2d 1160 (5th Cir. 1977). The court held that "possession of the shotgun by a non-felon has no legal consequences. U.S. Const. Amend. II."

U.S. v. Johnson. Jr., 441 F.2d 1134 (5th Cir. 1971). Once again, this decision merely quotes from Miller the statement concerning the requirement of an evidentiary showing of a militia nexus and a consequent rejection, without even the briefest of analysis, of the defendant`s challenging to the constitutionality of the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). Apparently, the defendant failed to put on evidence, as required by Miller, that the firearm at issue had a militia use. Thus, Miller bound the appeals court to reject the defendant`s challenge.

Quilici v. Village of Morton Grove, 695 F.2d 261 (7th Cir.1982), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 863 (1983). In rejecting a Second and Fourteenth Amendment challenge to a village handgun ban, the court held that the Second Amendment, either of itself or by incorporation through the Fourteenth Amendment, "does not apply to the states. . ." The court, in dicta, went on, however, to "comment" on the "scope of the second amendment," incorrectly summarizing Miller as holding that the right extends "only to those arms which are necessary to maintain a well regulated militia." Thus, finding (without evidence on the record) that "individually owned handguns [are not] military weapons," the court concluded that "the right to keep and bear handguns is not guaranteed by the Second Amendment."

U.S. v. McCutcheon, 446 F.2d 133 (7th Cir. 1971). This is another case involving the NFA in which the court merely followed Miller in holding that the NFA did not infringe the Second Amendment.

Stevens v. United States, 440 F.2d 144 (6th Cir 1971). In a one sentence holding, the court simply concluded that the Second Amendment "applies only to the right of the State to maintain a militia and not to the individual`s right to bear arms. . ." Merely citing Miller as authority for this conclusion, the court undertook no analysis of Miller or of the history of the ratification of the Second Amendment. This case, moreover, involved possession of firearms by convicted felons, a class of persons whose right traditionally have been more restricted than law-abiding citizens.

U.S. v. Day, 476 F.2d 562 (6th Cir. 1973). Citing Miller, the court merely concluded, in reviewing a challenge to the statute barring dishonorably discharged persons from possessing firearms, that "there is no absolute right of an individual to possess a firearm." (Emphasis added.) Since there are certain narrowly defined classes of untrustworthy persons, such as convicted felons and, as here, persons dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, who may be barred the possession of firearms, it is a truism to say that there is not an absolute right to possess firearms. In so saying, the court implicitly recognized the individual right of peaceful and honest citizens to possess firearm.

U S. v. Warin, 530 F.2d 103 (6th Cir 1976), cert. denied,426 U.S. 948 (1976). Following, and relying upon, its earlier decision in Stevens, supra, the court simply concluded, without any reference to the history of the Second Amendment, that it "is clear the Second Amendment guarantees a collective rather than an individual right." The court also indicated that, in reaching its decision, it was relying upon the First Circuit`s decision in Cases. infra. Yet in concluding that not all arms were protected by the Second Amendment, Cases did not hold, as did Warin, that the Second Amendment afforded individuals no protections whatever. Warin also erred in concluding that Warin`s relationship to the militia was relevant to determining whether his possession of a machine gun was protected by the Second Amendment since the Supreme Court in Miller focused on the firearm itself, not the individual involved. In fact, Miller quite expansively defined the constitutional militia as encompassing "all males physically capable of action in concert for the common defense."

U.S. v. Tot, 131 F.2d 261 (3rd Cir. 1942), rev`d on other grounds, 319 U.S. 463 (1943). This is another case involving possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Despite holding that the failure of the defendant to prove, as required by Miller, a militia use for the firearm was an adequate basis for ruling against the defendant, the court, in dicta, concluded that the Second Amendment "was not adopted with individual rights in mind . . ." This result was based on reliance on an extremely brief--and erroneous--analysis of common law and colonial history.5In addition, apparently recognizing that it decided the case on unnecessarily broad grounds, the court noted that, at common law, while there was a right to bear arms, that right was not absolute and could be restricted for certain classes of persons "who have previously. . . been shown to be aggressors against society."

U.S. v. Graves, 554 F.2d 65 (3rd Cir. 1977). Since the defendant in this case did not raise the Second Amendment as a challenge to the "statutory program which restricts the right to bear arms of convicted felons and other persons of dangerous propensities,"6 the only discussion of the Second Amendment is found in a bartnote wherein the court states "[a]rguably, any regulation of firearms may be violative of this constitutional provision."

Cases v. United States, 131 F.2d 916 (1st Cir. 1942), cert.denied sub nom., Velazquez v. U. S., 319 U.S. 770 (1943). In this case, the court held that the Supreme Court in Miller had not intended "to formulate a general rule" regarding which arms were protected by the Second Amendment and concluded, therefore, that many types of arms were not protected. Nonetheless, the court in Cases expressly acknowledged that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right when it noted that the law in question "undoubtedly curtails to some extent the right of individuals to keep and bear arms . . ." Id. at 921. (Emphasis added.) Moreover, the court in Cases concluded, as properly it should have, that Miller should not be read as holding that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to possess or use large weapons that could not be carried by an individual.

U.S. District Court Cases

U.S. v. Gross, 313 F.Supp. 1330 (S.D. Ind. 1970), aff`d on other grounds, 451 F.2d 1355 (7th Cir. 1971). In rejecting a challenge to the constitutionality of the requirement that those who engage in the business of dealing in firearms must be licensed, the court, following its view of Miller, held that the defendant had not shown that "the licensing of dealers in firearms in any way destroys, or impairs the efficiency of, a well regulated militia."

U.S. v. Kraase, 340 F.Supp. 147 (E.D. Wis. 1972). In ruling on a motion to dismiss an indictment, the court rejected a facial constitutional challenge to 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(5) -- which prohibited sales of firearms to residents of other states. Recognizing that an individual right was protected, it held that "second amendment protection might arise if proof were offered at the trial demonstrating that his possession of the weapon in question had a reasonable relationship to the maintenance of a `well-regulated Militia.`"

Thompson v. Dereta, 549 F. Supp. 297 (D. Utah 1982). An applicant for relief from disabilities (a prohibited person) brought an action against the federal agents involved in denying his application. The court dismissed the case, holding that, because there was no "absolute constitutional right of an individual to possess a firearm," there was "no liberty or property interest sufficient to give rise to a procedural due process claim."

Vietnamese Fishermen`s Assoc. v. KKK, 543 F.Supp. 198 (S.D.Tex. 1982). Like the statute faced by the Supreme Court in Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252 (1876), the Texas statute and the injunction at issue here prohibited private military activity. Mis-characterizing Miller, the court held that the Second Amendment "prohibits only such infringement on the bearing of weapons as would interfere with `the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia,` organized by the State." Later, however, the court, following Miller, explained that the "Second Amendment`s guarantee is limited to the right to keep and bear such arms as have `a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.`" The courts`s understanding of the Second Amendment is thus inconsistent and, given the facts of the case, largely dicta.

U.S. v. Kozerski, 518 F.Supp. 1082 (D.N.H. 1981), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 842 (1984). In the context of a challenge to the law prohibiting the possession of firearms by convicted felons; the court, while holding correctly (see discussion of Nelson, supra) that the Second Amendment "is not a grant of a right but a limitation upon the power of Congress and the national government, "concluded that the right "is a collective right . . . rather that an individual right," citing only Warin, supra. As a district court in the First Circuit, however, the court was bound by Cases, supra, which expressly recognized that the right belonged to individuals.


1 According to Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 15 of the Constitution, the functions of the militia are: "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions. . . ." Thus, the militia has a law enforcement function, a quasi law enforcement/quasi military function, and a military function. As a result, those firearms which are "arms" within the meaning of the Second Amendment are those which could be used to fulfill any of these functions.

2 Thus, when combined with the militia test--see bartnote 1--it is clear that cannons, trench mortars, rockets, missiles, anti-tank weapons (such as bazookas), and bombs would not be "arms" within the meaning of the Second Amendment.

3 Of the 13 federal courts of appeals, 8 have spoken on the Second Amendment, half holding that the right guaranteed is not an individual right, half holding that it is an individual right; one circuit has gone both ways. The remaining four have been silent. All of these cases, however, preceded the Supreme Court`s decision in U.S. v. Verdugo Urquidez.

4 As with all rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment does not "confer" any rights; it merely protects rights from government interference.

5 For example, the court referred to the colonists as "a defenseless citizenry. . ." In fact, it was precisely because the citizens did have arms and were not defenseless that they desired the Second Amendment; they did not want to become defenseless.

6 Implicit in this language is the fact that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right, albeit a right that may not be enjoyed by some narrowly defined class of untrustworthy persons.



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Gun Laws  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Guide To The Interstate Transportation Of Firearms

CAUTION: Federal and state firearms laws are subject to frequent change. This summary is not to be considered as legal advice or a restatement of law.


Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.