Narration: The Second Amendment states that Congress shall not infringe on the right to keep and bear arms. But for Dick Heller and millions of Americans who wanted to own a gun, it was a different story.
Mr. Heller was a special police officer guarding the Supreme Court back in the ‘90s. Every day at the end of his shift, he would turn in his pistol at the armory and ride his bike home through increasingly dangerous neighborhoods—unarmed.
Dick Heller: It did not go unnoticed by the justices that one of the people guarding them with a government-issued firearm was the litigant. And when I thought about it, a light bulb came on one day. And it occurred to me they give me a gun, but I can’t have a gun. I can protect them, but I cannot protect myself.
Narration: Heller applied for a one-year license for a handgun he wished to keep at home, but his application was denied. He then sued the District of Columbia for violating the Second Amendment. During the next 20 years, he took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court. On December 26, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Heller’s right to bear arms. On June 26 that year, Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion for the 5-4 majority.
Justice Scalia: Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.
Simone Gao: A large portion of the American public had waited decades for this moment. Heller told me his most memorable moment before the high court hearing.
Dick Heller: The story that I really like to tell is “the people” story because the night before the hearing, it was very cold in March, and I went to the local—I only lived a block away, so I pulled up on my bicycle and said, “Hey, y’all, what’s happening here? Why is everybody sleeping on the sidewalk?” An aw-shucks kind of thing. And nobody knew. Nobody recognized me. And it was cold, so I talked to a lot of people, and there was over 50 people sleeping on the sidewalk, so I said, “It’s getting cold, the sun’s going down.” I went to the drug store and bought two big 200-piece cough drop bags. So I had 400 cough drops. And then I went back and started at the head of the line, the sun had gone down by now, and gave everybody a handful of cough drops. And I said, “Here, you’re going to need these.” And everybody was saying, man, that dude’s nice. Who was that? You know, nobody. So the next morning I’m in a coat and tie, and I go down the line and shake everybody’s hands, and they suddenly recognize me. Oh, no. Oh, no, you didn’t. Oh, yes, I did. And they got a kick out of that because I was out there meeting the people because we were kind of all going in together to hear this case. I was just a normal people.
Simone Gao: Right. They’re not allowed in the Supreme Court, right? They’re outside waiting?
Dick Heller: They had to wait outside because so many people wanted to get in that they were sleeping on the sidewalk to be the first to enter the Court. The Court takes about 125, I think.
Simone Gao: How many of them were there?
Dick Heller: Hundreds. And they were swapping them in after the courtroom packed, then they would swap standing-room only 20 at a time for about 10 minutes.
Narration: A year after he won his case, Dick Heller realized he had started a tidal wave.
Dick Heller: And it was Second Amendment Foundation, Alan Gottlieb, I think, made the statement. It should’ve been him. He said since Dick Heller case was heard and decided, he said there have been over 75 additional gun cases one year later that have hit the courts challenging the local restrictions. I’m sitting on the front row, and my mouth falls open because it was just—all I knew was me and my little bubble, right, in a case here and a case there and then 75. And then a couple of years later, it was announced that there were over 300. I’m going, to myself, “Oh my gosh, we have started a tidal wave.” So what you can see is the power of the Supreme Court to properly interpret the Constitution has created significant challenges to the number of circuit courts and cities and states that just absolutely detest our Constitution and the Second Amendment most of all. So that’s the power they have because we live by laws.
Narration: Four years later, Heller got hit by another story. On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members. Before driving to the school, he shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived at the school, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Dick Heller: Don’t get me crying now. This really touches my heart. But in the case of Sandy Hook, I mean, I’d won this case and a couple of years later you have the Sandy Hook massacre. And I had to go have a talk with the man in the mirror and say was this your fault? And I finally figured out, no, it wasn’t my fault. What we did, and the Scalia decision, was give everyone the option to protect themselves. And the parents and the school board in Sandy Hook had no reason to believe that they would ever need security or armed people on their elementary school campus. So they made a financial decision by making no decision, not knowing about it. Had they ever thought through the previous school shootings, they might have said, gee, maybe we ought to protect our school. And after the Heller decision, they had the right, the specific enumerated, articulated right to do that. And they chose not to. So safety is a choice.
Simone Gao: After the school shooting, many victims’ family members supported tighter gun control restrictions over Second Amendment rights. They saw it as a solution to prevent this tragedy from happening again. What would you say to them?
Dick Heller: Interesting in that President Obama said when they bring a knife, we bring a gun. Well, when someone brings a gun and you are in high school and you have a knife or a baseball bat or nothing, you have a right to be stupid. Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the Parkland high school, and the Orlando nightclub shootings, in all those cases, they were, of course, all gun-free zones. And why would a criminal, a killer, want to have a bad day at the office and face gunfire? So they’re going to pick gun-free zones. The Orlando nightclub case, if there was anyone that was concealed carry, they were outside in the parking lot because they were not allowed inside under Florida law because you cannot conceal carry in Florida in an alcohol-serving establishment. So wherever—if you look at the FBI statistics, they have a table in their crime statistics annually called Table 8, and what you can do is you can see, as gun ownership goes up, crime goes down on a macro level, a national level, or a municipality county-city level, that’s just the dynamics of humans.
Simone Gao: Are you against background checks?
Dick Heller: All it does is slow people down and puts a burden on the law-abiding citizens. We submit to background checks because we’re law-abiding. What criminal wants a background check? They don’t go into the gun store to buy a gun. Do they have guns? Yes. Where do they come from? My, my. All over the place. So a background check just doesn’t do much. All it does is slows people down a little bit. Now, what you really should have is, when they go for the background check in the gun store and they fail, then a net should drop down and hold them until the police come. Now that’s a pretty good system maybe.
Simone Gao: As a police officer, do you think the general public’s owning guns makes your job easier or harder or perhaps more dangerous?
Dick Heller: A well-armed citizenry is a very polite and safe society because no one knows who’s armed if somebody gets out of line.