Before District of Columbia v. Heller, the 1939 decision United States v. Miller was the Supreme Court’s leading decision on the Second Amendment. Miller was, to put it mildly, obliquely written. As Michael O’Shea has detailed, the opinion seems mainly concerned with whether the gun in question was a militia-type weapon, which would suggest that the decision is congruent with a well-established line of state right to arms cases (some of which were cited in Miller) that all persons had a right to arms, but that the right only encompasses militia-type arms (and not, therefore, Bowie knives or other arms associated with disreputable brawlers). However, Miller is not clearly written, and over the subsequent seven decades, there was much dispute about its meaning. The disputes were almost inevitable, in that Miller is terse and oblique, and, except for a history of the early American militia, provides almost no explication or analysis.
At the oral argument in Heller, Justice Kennedy noted that Miller “kind of ends abruptly.” In the Heller decision, the Court observed that Miller was “virtually unreasoned.” Many scholars have wondered what Justice McReynolds was trying to do by writing such an opinion. ...
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On a related note, today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McDonald v. Chicago, the Chicago gun ban case, on whether the Second Amendment applies to states and their political subdivisions.