United States v. Cruikshank
After the Civil War, federal prosecutors indicted white defendants who had been violating the civil rights of freed African Americans. Often federal prosecutors charged white defendants with violating the Second Amendment rights of freed slaves by seizing their firearms.
In United States v. Cruikshank, Klansman William Cruikshank was charged with surrounding a courthouse occupied by armed blacks, attacking the courthouse, burning it down, and murdering blacks to tried to flee. Cruikshank was found guilty of violating the Enforcement Acts, which included a finding of guilt of conspiring to deprive the blacks of their constitutional rights to bear arms.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions and held the Enforcement Acts to be unconstitutional. The Court held that the right to bear arms were natural rights, and not rights granted or created by the Constitution. The Court held:
- The right ... of "bearing arms for a lawful purpose" ... is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed; but this ... means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress ... leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights it recognizes, to what is called ... the "powers which relate to merely municipal legislation ...."
The Court declared that citizens must rely on local governments "for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights" under the Second Amendment. This has been construed as establishing an "individual" rather merely a "collective" right to bear arms.
As in The Slaughter-House Cases, the Court rejected use of the Fourteenth Amendment as a limitation on state infringement of the Bill of Rights, which remained constitutional law until the 1920s, when the Court began to apply the Bill of Rights against the states.