The situation changed as a result of District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 case that challenged the constitutionality of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which imposed the handgun restriction on D.C. residents. Scalia and the majority in this case held that individuals maintain a right to have a gun under the Second Amendment for purposes like self-protection even if such possession has nothing to do with belonging to a militia.
But the decision didn’t end there. Scalia opened the door to some forms of unspecified regulation, asserting that the Second Amendment did not grant an unlimited right to own a firearm.
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote.
Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who dissented in the case, nonetheless said recently that the Heller decision failed to close the door on some forms of regulation.
“Prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons, on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill and laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings, or imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms, are specifically identified as permissible regulations,” Stevens said.
Several gun-control cases have cropped up in the federal courts since Heller. Last October, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court dismissal of a suit brought by the National Rifle Association challenging a federal law prohibiting anyone under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun from a dealer. A unanimous panel found that “preventing handguns from easily falling into the hands of 18-to-20 year olds remains critical to public safety.”