Before High Court Loosens Gun Laws Again, It Should Answer A Justice’s Unbriefed Question: Was Heller Rightly Decided?

A Message from the American Enlightenment Project: Congressional Action Is Helpful but Not Enough, After Heller Put America in Peril

WASHINGTON, DC, US, June 16, 2022 / — Saturday’s second nationwide March for Our Lives – following another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas where 19 elementary school children and 2 teachers were killed and 17 others wounded – led the next day to the first bipartisan movement in Congress in nearly 30 years. But the tentative Senate framework, focused on mental health, school security, and other minimal reforms, should it become law, “will have little impact on America’s worsening epidemic of gun violence,” says Robert Ludwig of Ludwig & Robinson PLLC, counsel for the American Enlightenment Project.

“This is serious business. We do not wish to be even minutely responsible for some unspeakably tragic act of mayhem because in the peace of our chambers we miscalculated as to Second Amendment rights.”
U.S. v. Masciandaro (4th Cir. 2011) (Wilkinson, J.)

After the first March for Our Lives following the Parkland high school massacre in 2018, retired Justice John Paul Stevens called minimal measures like universal background checks useful to reduce “mass killings of schoolchildren and others” but no cure, and encouraged students to “seek more effective and more lasting reform” and “demand a repeal of the Second Amendment” as interpreted in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).

HELLER Was wrongIn Heller, the Supreme Court found in the Second Amendment, for the first time in 220 years, an implied right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense. Courts throughout the 20th century had held that the amendment was meant “solely to protect the right of the states to keep and maintain armed militia.” Dissenting Justice Stevens later observed that all of the justices could foresee the “negative consequences” of Heller’s “radical change in the law.”

Doubling down, the court is poised in coming weeks to expand Heller’s guarantee from the home to public carry, in N.Y.S. Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. Bruen. Justice Stephen Breyer warned during oral argument that it would allow carrying a gun around any town just for fun, spawning chaos. In the one hopeful moment, Justice Amy Conan Barrett asked whether “Heller was rightly decided.” New York’s Solicitor General, Barbara Underwood, missing an opportunity, responded she was “quite content to treat it as rightly decided.”

Protests“Such contentment among gun control advocates generally,” says Mr. Ludwig, “is sleepwalking the country into a deepening crisis.” Time to Heed Justice Stevens’ Warnings about Heller.

“Not only were the negative consequences foreseeable in Heller,” Mr. Ludwig continues, “courts have long known that unchecked gun proliferation leads to impulsive, confrontational behavior, with deadly results.” An 1832 treatise cited in Heller condemned carrying pistols that “frequently turned a quarrel into a bloody affray, which otherwise would have terminated in angry words.” Even the historian Heller cited, Joyce Malcolm, called a right to guns “a dangerous public freedom.”

  • A typical American weekend this April left 1 dead, 15 injured at a Dallas concert after a fight, and 6 dead and 12 wounded hours later after another fight in Sacramento, 2 of 8 mass shootings. The weekend before, 9 mass shootings included 2 killed and 3 wounded at a Norfolk restaurant after an argument over a spilled drink.
  • Five weekends ago saw 10 killed, 3 hurt at a Buffalo grocery over racial hate, 1 dead, 5 shot at a California church in anger over Taiwan, and 20 shot outside an NBA game in Milwaukee after fights.
  • This Memorial Day weekend to honor America’s war dead marked 15 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, followed by 13 the next weekend, and 13 more last weekend, many after disputes.
  • Mass shootings represent a small portion of the 145 gun deaths (with hundreds more wounded) every day. Nearly two-thirds are gun suicides. Much of the rest involve domestic violence, road-rage shootings (every 17 hours), and everyday disputes (an Ohio teen recently shot his dad in an argument over bedtime).
  • “Now we’re seeing [what’s] always been part of human conflict … coupled with the accessibility of firearms.” Arguments over chips, a car accident that “should have been resolved through words” “end up where someone’s dead.” “We have individuals of all ages using firearms to resolve their disagreements.”—Milwaukee Police Chief Jeffrey Norman (Apr. 25 & 28, 2022).“To stop the insanity,” Mr. Ludwig states, “the country should stop doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”
  • America must stop explaining away the problem of mixing guns and human nature as a “sickness” or “crime” – it has no more sickness or crime than other nations with a fraction of its gun violence.
  • Gun violence prevention efforts should stop parsing each shooter, victim, or weapon for targeting reforms while ignoring the patterns – most shootings arise from confrontations that otherwise would end in words, and shooters typically shoot their peers or acquaintances. Both underscore that unregulatable impulses – grievances, despair, anger, made deadly by guns – are driving this crisis.
  • And Americans have to stop overlooking the fact that just over a decade ago they never had this level of guns and gun violence. Scientific American reported last month that guns overtook cars in 2017 as the leading cause of adolescent deaths. But its graph also showed gun deaths declined from 2000 through 2008-2010, then increased. So does other data.

“The country needs to ask what changed,” Mr. Ludwig says, “and then do something about it. If America keeps ignoring that change, the bloodshed will keep escalating.”

The Elephant in the Room

Though largely forgotten, Heller, striking down federal handgun bans in 2008, extended to state bans in McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, shackled regulation and boosted gun sales nationwide. After Heller and McDonald, gun proliferation and violence increased and then accelerated. By 2015, a “Gun Epidemic” was declared in a front-page New York Times editorial. Gun deaths surged from 31,500 in 2008 to 45,000 in 2020, an all-time high. After the epidemic was declared in 2015, 371 mass shootings more than doubled to 818 in 2021, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker. School shootings set a new record in the first half of this school year, and every day 41 children lose a parent to gun violence. Road-rage shootings doubled from 2014 to 2016, and again from 2017 to 2021.

Aside from the human toll, gun violence is a costly national embarrassment. Other nations now issue travel advisories to the U.S. The U.S. pays $280 billion in annual health care, insurance and government costs due to gunshots, over 1% of GDP. The nation’s capital alone paid $1 billion in 2021.

American society itself is destabilizing. Citizens resist or shoot police during traffic stops and responses to 911 calls. Pseudo militia intimidate protests, polling places, and government hearings. Emboldened gun-rights advocates in Congress and state legislatures dismiss discussion of all but minimal measures (like the Senate framework) as contrary to the constitutional rights of all citizens and a threat to freedom.

Supreme Court decisions have consequences. But somehow the country’s political leaders, media, gun safety groups and researchers blame the gun crisis on everything but Heller’s dramatic change in the law.

A Historic Legal Blunder

“Heller was not just wrongly decided,” Mr. Ludwig states, it “is one of the court’s most glaring and embarrassing blunders.” Justice Stevens called it “the worst self-inflicted wound in Court history,” saying “overruling Heller is desperately needed.” More than he knew, it is a house of cards that cannot stand.

Its author, Justice Antonin Scalia, considered it a “vindication” of his doctrine of textual originalism, and “best example” of seeing what the Second Amendment meant when adopted. Instead, Heller is a monument to oversimplification, superficial assumptions, and bad law.

For starters, the Heller court never considered the states’ right to keep armed militia, the longtime understanding, and even though the debates preceding adoption of the amendment were all about that right. It was because neither side raised it, in a remarkable failure of the adversary system. Instead, gun control and rights advocates argued variants of an individual right, to serve in the militia and to self-defense, of which there is not a word in the founding debates, and which the majority and dissents, respectively, called “absurd.”

The amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

  • Justice Scalia dismissed “well regulated” in one sentence, writing it “implies nothing more than … proper discipline and training.” But the earlier Articles of Confederation provided that “every state shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia” – an organized and disciplined force. To equate “well regulated” and “disciplined” as Heller did would reduce the first constitution to “disciplined and disciplined militia,” or impermissible nonsense. James Madison, who drafted the amendment, warned “it can never be supposed that when copied into this constitution, a different meaning ought to be attached to” terms taken from the original.
  • Heller’s next glaring mistake was that militia meant “citizens’ militia” – individuals – not military forces. It speculated that “organized militia may consist of a subset” should Congress “not conscript every able-bodied man,” citing no support. But a hypothetical, conditioned on Congress not exercising its power, cannot alter constitutional terms, and the Articles’ use of “well regulated militia” forecloses, as Madison said, a different meaning. The term “citizens militia” is not found in any reported decision until a 1980 Oregon case involving – wait for it – billy clubs. That case, State v. Kessler, misreading law reviews, conflated the concepts of citizen soldiers and militia into an oxymoron.
  • Addressing the operative clause, Heller rewrote “right of the people to keep and bear arms” as a right of individuals to “possess” a handgun and “carry it in the home.” Heller assumed the people were individuals, ignoring warnings by Madison and other framers that meaning depends on context, like the preamble Heller rewrote, unique among the amendments, and the final clause “shall not be infringed” it ignored. Heller itself recognized that a government-regulated militia (unless reinvented as a “disciplined” citizens militia), “fits poorly” with an individual right. In fact, the preamble and final clause, among many other things, preclude it.
  • As for the final clause, Heller never addressed its meaning. Overlooking the verb on which the amendment rests, Heller transposed “infringed” to “abridged,” though not synonyms as any thesaurus shows. Abridged was used for the great personal rights in the First Amendment (where the first Senate corrected the House’s substitution of infringed) and all amendments since that guarantee personal rights. By contrast, infringed was used in our organic laws, including the Articles (providing “that the legislative right of any state … be not infringed”), only to protect sovereign rights. Correcting a related misconception about patent infringement, a nearly unanimous court in 2018 reaffirmed it involves a “public,” not “personal right,” in Oil States Energy v. Greene’s Energy, an opinion ironically by Justice Thomas, a staunch defender of Heller’s personal right.
    Virtually everything about Heller, Mr. Ludwig shows, distorts the text and founding record. To give yet another example, the right it cites to “weapons typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes” – used to overturn handgun bans – is based on the fiction that militia and personal weapons “‘were one and the same.’” That quote comes from the billy club case, Kessler, which miscited a swords encyclopedia that contradicts it.
  • Needing a rationale for how its implied right of self-defense “fit” the preamble’s focus on the militia, Heller endorsed for the first time the popular myth of a “citizens’ militia as a safeguard against tyranny” if “the constitutional order broke down.” But as Alexander Hamilton explained (in Federalist 28) it is “an axiom of our political system” that “State governments will … afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.” Madison agreed (in Federalist 46) that “State Governments … would be able to repel the danger.” The English jurist William Blackstone repudiated as overzealous the notion that individuals had “the right of … employing private force to resist” as a “doctrine productive of anarchy.”
  • Heller’s empty rationale has irresponsibly inspired pseudo militia that threaten government itself. One January 6 insurgent, Guy Reffitt, said the taking of the U.S. Capitol and violent removal of lawmakers was justified by the “constitutionalist” right of resistance, echoing Heller.

“Even more fatal,” Mr. Ludwig observes, “Heller cannot legally stand, as is well established, having not addressed the final clause of text it purported to decide. That result becomes further inescapable when one considers the overlooked origins, full wording, and states’ right meaning of the amendment that were never presented.”

Heller needs to be recognized for what it is, and overturned. America can no longer accept the dangerous, deeply flawed, and “radical” decision that has led to the proliferation – unique in the world – of guns and gun violence. Nor can it accept what the court once called in another context a “solemn mockery” of the Constitution.

It is profoundly important Americans understand, as Justice Stevens urged in 2014, that Heller contributes to the record gun violence; in fact, is central to it. That Heller was the product of guesswork, guesswork now devastating the nation. That Heller was not rightly decided, but a historic blunder like the court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision that led to over 600,000 Civil War dead.

“Continuing efforts to normalize Heller because it does not totally block legislatures are delusional and deeply pernicious,” Mr. Ludwig says, “as seeking to persuade Americans not to question what is actually killing them.” Guaranteed by Heller, too many are using their guns to settle disputes or shoot those who get in their way, a dynamic that will continue regardless of safety measures. It’s like trying to regulate drunk driving after the court declares a right to drive drunk. It can’t be done. Arguing Heller does not prevent background checks is like arguing a right to drive drunk would not limit driver licensing – the problem is what happens when ordinary citizens later drive drunk, or use guns while angry.

Defer Bruen and Decide the Full Amendment

As the court contemplates adding to the general mayhem and civil disorder Heller is fueling, it should reexamine its premise that, despite “the problem of handgun violence in this country,” “the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table.” If the Second Amendment enshrined no individual right, but rather the sovereign right of the states to maintain their militia, then Heller had no basis for taking any legislative choice off the table.

If the court blindly extends Heller’s oddly-worded right to “carry a gun in the home” to carry in the streets, Mr. Ludwig concludes, “it acts at the country’s worsening peril, and its own. The prudent and only responsible course is for the court to recognize it has not addressed the full amendment, order rebriefing, and then decide what the Constitution actually means.”

And do what Justice Scalia himself advocated in a 2014 case before he died: disown “judge invented doctrine” he was convinced “was wrongly decided,” as was “glaringly obvious,” urging his colleagues to overrule it rather than insist Congress “clean up a mess that I helped make.”

Robert Ludwig
Ludwig & Robinson PLLC
+1 202-289-7603
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Announcing on the 10th Anniversary of D.C. v. Heller the Launch of the AMERICAN ENLIGHTENMENT PROJECT, a New Nonprofit Dedicated to Ending the Gun Epidemic

Today, the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in D.C. v. Heller (June 26, 2008), a promising front in the battle against growing gun violence opens with the launch of the American Enlightenment Project, a new nonprofit in Washington, DC dedicated to ending the epidemic of gun proliferation and violence that arose after Heller and its sequel Chicago v. McDonald (2010). AEP’s groundbreaking work challenges conventional wisdom, shows the tragic link between the sudden epidemic and Heller, and reveals it as a historic blunder that overlooked constitutional text and founding history, which make clear the Second Amendment has nothing to do with an individual right.

Having forgotten there was an American Enlightenment and our founding history, we now have what prior generations did not: a “gun epidemic.”

“To break the back of a senseless epidemic, Americans should pay more attention to retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a Cassandra unheeded about Heller,” said Robert W. Ludwig, a Washington attorney and legal advisor to AEP. Justice Stevens in 2014, citing “the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns” and presaging the “Gun Epidemic” declared the next year, warned it is “profoundly important” to know Heller “curtails the government’s power to regulate the use of handguns that contribute to the roughly 88 [now 96] deaths every day”—indeed silently contribute to the vast majority of daily gun deaths.

Following this year’s March for Our Lives, Justice Stevens, calling student demands for an assault-rifle ban and universal background checks useful to minimize “mass killings of schoolchildren and others” but not enough to curb worsening violence, encouraged students to “seek more effective and more lasting reform.” Frustrated like many Americans and treating Heller and the Second Amendment as the proverbial rock and a hard place, Justice Stevens proposed repeal of the amendment as the easier course. “Actually,” Mr. Ludwig says, “it is Heller, far from a mighty rock, that is vulnerable.”

For starters, he explains, “it is not just important to see Heller as a cause of the epidemic, but that it decided only two-thirds of the amendment. In construing the right ‘to keep and bear Arms’ which ‘shall not be infringed,’ Heller never considered the meaning of that constitutional command. Instead, it transposed ‘infringed’ to ‘abridged,’ though not even synonyms, like changing the commandment ‘shall not kill’ to ‘maim.’ Overlooked terms of art, ‘infringed’ protects the right of states to arm their militia; ‘abridged’ was used to protect individual rights in the First Amendment and all others for 200 years since.”

Overlooking pivotal text is “Probably the strongest reason for not following a decision,” the California Supreme Court said recently in correcting a 140-year oversight “‘announced in ignorance’” of an 1872 statute, “a remarkable failure of the adversary system” strikingly like Heller. Noting “It is better that wisdom, or at least controlling authority, come to our attention late, rather than not at all,” the California high court held “because the relevant language and history” was not applied, its prior case “cannot stand.”

“So too Heller,” says Mr. Ludwig. “Having not construed the full text, and other things hiding in plain sight, there is no legal way it can stand.” To end the epidemic it enabled, “what is needed is not repeal but a challenge to Heller, only one court case away from being renounced as the historic blunder it is for elementary oversights of text and founding history.”

AEP’s efforts are supported by years of intensive legal and historical review unraveling the Second Amendment’s mysteries. Mr. Ludwig’s published articles include: “2nd Amendment Still Undecided, Hiding in Plain View” (Law360 Jan. 11, 2016); “Court Nominee, Guns, and Constitutional Illiteracy” (Law360 Mar. 15, 2016); “Heller Sequels and 2nd Amendment, Still Undecided: Part 1” (Law360 July 20, 2017); Part 2 (Aug. 3, 2017); Part 3 (Aug. 24, 2017); and “The Historic Legal Blunder that Enabled Our Gun Epidemic: Renouncing Heller by Deciding – Not Repealing – the Full Second Amendment” (Law360 Apr. 25, 2018).

AEP is led by an Advisory Council, including the following:

  • Robert W. Ludwig, an experienced litigator and founder of Ludwig & Robinson PLLC, an international law firm in Washington, D.C. with a Detroit office, a leading German affiliate, and a national practice in trial and appellate litigation.
  • Jack N. Rakove, the W. R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science and (by courtesy) of Law at Stanford University. His areas of research include the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation.
  • Petra Smeltzer Starke, the Executive Director of AEP, is a business leader, policy advisor, and entrepreneur.
  • Scott R. Williams, a co-founder and partner of ForeFront Strategies, a Washington communications firm.

For more information, including copies of the foregoing articles, please go to

The Second Amendment Still Undecided, Hiding in Plain View

Ludwig & Robinson posts article revealing new insights on the gun debate, including how District of Columbia v. Heller remarkably did not address much less decide the full Amendment as assumed.


Robert W. Ludwig, founding member of the Washington law firm Ludwig & Robinson, offers new legal and historical insights in response to “The Gun Epidemic,” the first New York Times front-page editorial in a century, urging: “It is past time to stop talking” and start reducing or “eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition” in the wake of San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and daily mass shootings. President Barack Obama, saying “enough is enough,” yesterday announced executive actions, constrained by Congressional inaction and surprising assumptions about the Second Amendment.

In a timely article, “Exceptionalism Today: Mass Guns, Mass Shootings, and Mass Oversights – The Second Amendment Still Undecided, Hiding in Plain View,” Mr. Ludwig points out that the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), a sharply divided 5-4 decision overturning D.C.’s handgun ban and two centuries of law and legislative practice, “remarkably did not address much less decide the full Amendment as is assumed. Nor did Heller address, in roiling settled law if not domestic tranquility, the whole constitutional and founding record, which is far more extensive and clear than believed.”

“For openers,” said Mr. Ludwig, “one would think that in construing the right ‘to keep and bear Arms,’ which ‘shall not be infringed,’ the Court addressed the meaning of ‘infringed.’ Yet nowhere in Heller, overturning 200 years of law that the right was collective and not individual, does the Court consider let alone decide that term, a smoking gun hiding in plain view.”

Heller did recognize the text says the right “‘shall not be infringed,’ but did not address what ‘infringed’ means.” Instead it “transposed ‘infringed’ to ‘abridged’ (‘Congress was given no power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms’), equating the two with no analysis.” Two years later an even more splintered Court applied this newfound right against the states to strike down Chicago’s similar ban, again using “‘abridged’ and ‘infringed’ interchangeably, defining neither.”

Infringed and abridged are different words, the article explains, “have different meanings in period and modern dictionaries, and are not even synonyms. Where words ‘cannot, in any appropriate sense, be said to be synonimous,’ Justice Joseph Story once warned, to ‘suppose them to signify the same thing,’ as the Court did, ‘would be to defeat the obvious purposes of both.’”

“Why did the framers use, in fact insist upon, ‘abridged’ and not ‘infringed’ when they intended an individual right?,” Mr. Ludwig asks. “The reason becomes obvious when one looks, as urged by Story: ‘It must have been the result of some determinate reason; and it is not very difficult to find,’ here in pertinent drafting history” and founding-era documents, none addressed in Heller.

In other words, Heller “never decided the question presented: whether D.C.’s handgun ban ‘infringed’ a Second Amendment right.” And until the Court addresses the verb on which the entire Amendment rests, “arguably Heller, having neither addressed nor authoritatively decided whether anything was ‘infringed,’” has no effect on the courts or legislatures. That would mean “the Court’s prior unanimous holding in 1939 which Heller never overruled, as unanimously reaffirmed by the Burger Court in 1980, is still controlling.” As the latter affirmed, nothing in the Second Amendment prevents “legislative restrictions,” including those called for in the Times editorial. “Gun rights and control groups have much to debate,” Mr. Ludwig says, “just not the Second Amendment.”

For the article, visit


Ludwig & Robinson, PLLC is a law firm based in Washington with an office in Detroit, and affiliate in Germany. The firm has a national and international practice in trial and appellate litigation.

Robert Ludwig
Ludwig & Robinson PLLC
+1 202-289-7603
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