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To Understand Scalia's Judicial Philosophy, Look No Further Than D.C.'s Gun Laws

Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard who sued the District of Columbia after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his Capitol Hill home, spoke outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2008 after it struck down the city's handgun ban.
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard who sued the District of Columbia after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his Capitol Hill home, spoke outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2008 after it struck down the city's handgun ban.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Saturday at the age of 79, was the Supreme Court's best-known "originalist" — he believed that the meaning of the U.S. Constitution was set when it was adopted, and the interpretation doesn't shift to meet the times.

That judicial philosophy was rarely clearer than in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision that not only overturned the District of Columbia's longstanding ban on handgun ownership, but also redefined the decades-old legal interpretation of the Second Amendment.

In 2003, D.C. security guard Dick Heller and five other residents sued the city over its handgun ban, which had been in place since the 1970s. The case worked its way up to the Supreme Court, where it was heard in March 2008.

In June, a 5-4 majority led by Scalia declared the city's handgun ban unconstitutional. In so doing, Scalia weaved a broad historical analysis into the majority opinion to declare for the first time that the Second Amendment protects citizens' right to bear arms as individuals — instead of as part of a militia, as a 1939 court decision had held.

"The inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right," Scalia wrote in the opinion. "The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home."

In essence, Scalia argued that the Second Amendment had always intended to protect an individual's right to bear arms, and nothing in American history since its drafting could be used to change that meaning.

The ruling had an immediate impact in D.C., as the city was forced to allow residents to own and keep handguns. But though he had upended the longstanding handgun ban, Scalia also made clear that the Heller ruling wasn't absolute: "Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."

That has set off a fight that continues today in the nation's capital and across the country: Just how far can jurisdictions go in regulating gun ownership?

After the 2008 ruling, D.C. officials instituted strict registration requirements. Those were quickly challenged, then upheld in a 2011 court ruling. But in late 2015 another court found the city's one-gun-per-month restriction to be without merit.

The fight has extended beyond the home. In 2014, a federal judge tossed out the city's ban on carrying handguns outside residences, forcing the D.C. Council to write a law allowing residents to apply for concealed carry permits.

Last year, two D.C. residents sued the city over that law, saying it's too restrictive. A judge quickly agreed with them, though he was later disqualified from ruling on the case.

Some gun-rights advocates say that D.C.'s restrictive concealed carry law could eventually reach the Supreme Court, where justices could issue another ruling advancing their cause. But if it ever gets there, Scalia won't be there to hear it.

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