1 minute read

United States v. Miller

Preserving A Well-regulated Militia

Federal authorities were unwilling to ignore this challenge, even though Miller and Layton quickly disappeared after gaining their freedom. The government's appeal of the decision to quash the indictment was argued before the Supreme Court on 30 March 1939. Since Miller and Layton were not available despite being named as the appellees, only the government argument was heard. The Court quickly returned a decision in favor of the government on 15 May, agreeing unanimously that the Firearms Act neither violated the Second Amendment nor was an unconstitutional infringement of states' rights.

Like the defendants' lawyers and the Arkansas court, the Supreme Court decision focused on the Second Amendment, which states:

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.

In his written decision, Justice McReynolds sketched the origins and importance of self-armed citizen militias in the early history of the American colonies. In the present case, however, McReynolds and other members of the Court rejected the idea that weapons named in the Firearms Act had any valid relation to the maintenance of military protection.

"In the absence of any evidence tending to show that the 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," wrote McReynolds.

By this standard, the Court found that Congress had not violated the Second Amendment by passing the Firearms Act. "Certainly," McReynolds added, "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 Court's decision that the charges against Miller and Layton were incorrectly dismissed had no effect on the indicted men, both of whom vanished long before their names appeared on the national legal battlefield. In a larger sense, however, the Miller decision became a benchmark for lower courts in deciding cases dealing with gun possession. By narrowly interpreting the Second Amendment right to gun ownership according to its relationship to a "well-regulated militia," the Court, for the first time, provided a framework within which regulatory firearms legislation could be drafted.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940United States v. Miller - Sawed-off Shotguns The Second Amendment, Preserving A Well-regulated Militia, The Brady Bill