Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment

By Brian Doherty | Go to book overview
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Introduction: Heller Makes History

Early on the morning of March 18, 2008, before the sun began to warm the stone plaza in front of the wide, sweeping front steps and regal colonnade of the Supreme Court of the United States, hundreds of people had gathered. They formed a ragged line stretching around to the northern side of the Court's pillared halls.

The crowd bore the long wait standing or sitting on chilly stone, many with nothing but overcoats for pillows or blankets. Still, they were excited, neither aggravated nor bored. The first 50 or so had been there overnight to claim the first-come, first-served chance to sit inside the courthouse's hallowed halls, to see and hear the justices and lawyers spar firsthand. It was worth the trouble. American history would be made there, that day.

That District of Columbia specialty, the professional line-sitter, held some places for those who couldn't wait all night themselves, but who couldn't risk missing the look on Justice Antonin Scalia's face, the tone of Justice John Paul Stevens's voice, as they jousted over a question that had divided both courts and the American people for decades.

Starting at 10:00 a.m. that day, the Supreme Court would hear the oral arguments in District of Columbia v. Heller. That case asked the Court to make its first modern-era pronouncement on one of the Bill of Rights' core elements—and greatest sources of controversy and confusion. The crowd was there to hear how the justices would treat the arguments of the lawyers for the District of Columbia— which for 32 years had completely forbidden its citizens to possess usable firearms, even in their homes—and the arguments of the lawyers for Dick Heller—a man who wanted to have a legally registered handgun for personal defense in his home. The case's resolution promised to settle the meaning of America's most contentious constitutional right: the right to possess arms, guns… dangerous weapons.

The objects at issue in Heller are called many things, some objective and some judgmental. Similarly, Americans hold many opinions,

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