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A 1939 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of the federal government to regulate firearms, so long as those regulations do not inhibit the ability of individuals to use firearms for the common defense.

The syllabus of US v. Miller (307 US 174, 1939) reads, in part,

The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.

The Facts of the Case
Jack Miller and Frank Layton were accused of transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines, breaking a law (the National Firearms Act of 1934) which made it a crime to transport (interstate) shotguns with barrel lengths of less than 18 inches. They were convicted, and this conviction was appealed.

It was then argued by a demurrer (objecting on the behalf of the defendants) that this law was not, at its heart, about interstate commerce, but instead attempted to "usurp police power reserved to the States," and that the law (in the words of the Court's opinion) "offends the inhibition of the Second Amendment."

The Outcome
The Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling on the matter, noting that:

In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.

The opinion goes on to explain something of the history of militias, noting that they have been, generally, recognized as being distinct bodies from the troops of a nation. Specifically, they note that:

…the debates in the (Constitutional) Convention, the history and legislation of Colonies and States, and the writings of approved commentators … show plainly enough that the Militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.

However, in deciding upon the merits of the defendants' argument, they state that, "With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view." Therefore, future courts have been provided with a standard to judge individual firearms regulations: they may be constitutional insofar as they do not inhibit the ability of the able bodied population to cooperate in defensive operations.

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