Gun Rights – McDonald v. Chicago

As most people no doubt know, the recent Supreme Court decision in McDonald v. Chicago effectively broadened the application of the 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller decision to laws within states and cities. I have some objection to this decision, and, as was the case in the Citizens United decision, Justice Stevens effectively states in his dissent (beginning on page 123 of that pdf) the essence of my feelings as well:

“Of course, owning a handgun may be useful for practicing self-defense. But the right to take a certain type of action is analytically distinct from the right to acquire and utilize specific instrumentalities in furtherance of that action. And while some might favor handguns, it is not clear that they are a superior weapon for lawful self-defense, and nothing in petitioners’ argument turns on that being the case. The notion that a right of self-defense implies an auxiliary right to own a certain type of firearm presupposes not only controversial judgments about the strength and scope of the (posited) self-defense right, but also controversial assumptions about the likely effects of making that type of firearm more broadly available. It is a very long way from the proposition that the Fourteenth Amendment protects a basic individual right of self-defense to the conclusion that a city may not ban handguns” (emphasis mine).

The law in question in this case did not ban the possession of firearms. It restricts (restricted) the possession of handguns specifically. Ownership of shotguns—which many people agree are the superior home defense weapon—and rifles was not prohibited under the law in question, although certain variant weapons (sawed-off shotguns, for example) were also prohibited. In this sense, there was little to no inhibition of the right to self-defense, which was stated to be at the core of McDonald’s case against the city.

I am not specifically against the private ownership of weapons. I grew up in a home with two rifles and a pistol; I have  experience in target/skeet shooting with handguns, rifles, and shotguns, activities which I enjoy. However, I am willing to acknowledge that there is a legitimate societal/state interest in controlling, to a certain extent, the availability of weapons within that society/state. Few disagree with banning the private ownership of fully-automatic machine guns, for example. As such, it is generally recognized that there are legitimate reasons to specify certain weapons as acceptable for personal defense and other weapons as unacceptable for personal defense.

So, what to make of handguns? Handguns are, of course by nature, much more portable and easy-to-conceal than long guns (rifles/shotguns). They are more likely to be used in the commission of violent crimes. They are not the most effective weapons for personal defense. As such, it would not seem unreasonable to restrict their possession, in a manner similar to that of machine guns, as such restriction does not seem to cause any materially significant harm to the self-defense ability of the individual.


It should be noted that this discussion does not revolve around self-defense in the open—that is, outside of one’s home. Laws regarding concealed carry/open carry of weapons on one’s person are not the topic here, but perhaps they will be written on in the future.

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  • DQ  On June 30, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Interesting — I had not previously thought about the issue in this way. I generally tend towards the opinion that placing restrictions upon a citizen’s means of self-defense is, in a sense, akin to proscribing it. Consider the laws of 18th century Japan that restricted who could and could not own weapons — clearly designed to limit the ability of a class of citizens to defend themselves against another class.

    I once had a lot of trouble with this whole idea of “Liberty” — which is where this issue seems to land — and thought that the safety of law enforcement ought to be the higher priority; I am no longer convinced that this is the case.

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