The 'Sensitive Places' Doctrine: Locational Limits on the Right to Bear Arms

Charleston Law Review Vol. 13 (2018)

90 Pages Posted: 10 May 2019

See all articles by David B. Kopel

David B. Kopel

University of Wyoming College of Law - Firearms Research Center; Independence Institute; Cato Institute; Denver University - Sturm College of Law

Joseph Greenlee

The Heartland Institute; Firearms Policy Coalition; Millennial Policy Center

Date Written: 2018


Where may the government prohibit the bearing of arms? In District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court offered a short answer: “in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.” This Article examines the historical foundation and the modern application of the sensitive places doctrine.

Heller’s terse “sensitive places” dicta was part of a list of three types of “presumptively lawful regulatory measures.” The Court promised that “there will be time enough to expound upon the historical justifications for the exceptions we have mentioned if and when those exceptions come before us.”

Since the 2008 Heller opinion, the Court has not elaborated on the meaning of “sensitive places.” Thus, lower courts have been required to find their own answers.

This Article is the first to analyze the full scope of the sensitive places doctrine. Part I examines English history, starting with a 1313 law that forbade bringing arms to Parliament. Protecting government deliberation from violent interference is the core of the sensitive places tradition.

Part II looks at colonial America and the Founding. Several colonial and early state laws safeguarded government deliberation by barring arms from courts or polling places. Some scholars have argued that in England and Early America, arms carrying was prohibited everywhere. Parts I and II address that argument.

Part III covers the nineteenth century, when more states enacted laws for protection of government deliberation. A few states enacted laws against carrying arms at most public or private gatherings.

Part IV surveys the twentieth century and the pre-Heller portion of the twenty-first.

Post-Heller precedent is covered in part V, as courts have tried to decide what places are “like” schools and government buildings.

Finally, Part VI consolidates the rules of the “sensitive places” doctrine, based on text, history, tradition, and precedent.

Keywords: sensitive places, Second Amendment, right to bear arms, District of Columbia v. Heller

JEL Classification: K14, K39, K42

Suggested Citation

Kopel, David B. and Greenlee, Joseph, The 'Sensitive Places' Doctrine: Locational Limits on the Right to Bear Arms (2018). Charleston Law Review Vol. 13 (2018), Available at SSRN: or

David B. Kopel (Contact Author)

University of Wyoming College of Law - Firearms Research Center ( email )

United States


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Joseph Greenlee

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Firearms Policy Coalition ( email )

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