Public Policy

The term “public policy” refers to a set of actions the government takes to address issues within society. For example, public policy addresses problems over the long-term, such as issues with healthcare or gun control, and as such, it can take years to develop. Public policy addresses issues that affect a wider swath of society, rather than those pertaining to smaller groups. To explore this concept, consider the following public policy definition.

Definition of Public Policy


  1. A course of governmental action established to address the problems of the society at large, rather than individual needs on a smaller scale.



What is Public Policy?

Public policy is a set of actions the government decides to take when approaching a problem that affects society as a group, rather than on an individual level. Simply put, public policy refers to policies that the government makes on the public’s behalf to resolve a specific issue.

For example, public policy might tackle the problem of student loans by creating a student loan forgiveness program that affects several students at once, rather than paying off the loan of one student. Something important to remember about public policy is that it does not just refer to the government’s actions, but also to the behaviors and actions that result from those actions.

Social Safety Net

During the Great Depression, which happened in the 1930s, the U.S. created a sort of “social safety net” to support those who had felt significant impacts from the Depression. The social safety net extended to those who had lost their jobs, homes, and all their savings. Working with the government, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created programs like the Work Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. These groups were to specifically focus on improving rates of unemployment.

President Roosevelt also created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to help individuals refinance their mortgages and ease the debt created by the Depression. Once the Depression began to let up, the government started phasing out these programs as well. However, some of the programs the government started back then are still around today, including Social Security, Medicare, and minimum wage.

Process of Public Policy

The process of public policy is a continuous one. There exists a constant need for verification and evaluation before the government can push a policy through. Some believe that the government only decides on public policy after a matter of months, but, in reality, public policy can take several years to enact.

There are several players at work in the process of the public policy. Everyone from politicians and civil servants, to lobbyists and industry representatives, are involved in public policy. These individuals strategize and come up with tactics and tools to push their proposed policies through. Some of the ways in which they do this is by:

  • Advocating publicly for the policies they are attempting to push through
  • Attempting to educate both supporters of and opponents to the policy in an effort to gain more support
  • Gathering allies together to advocate for a particular issue

Public Policy vs. Domestic Policy

Domestic policy is like public policy, only on a smaller scale. For instance, while public policy is concerned with the public at large, domestic policy issues typically involve people from specific religions, cultures, or personal beliefs. Depending on the issue, domestic policy can often be controversial. For instance, some of the issues covered under domestic policy involve:

  • Abortion
  • Gun control
  • LGBTQ+ rights
  • Separation of church and state
  • Cultural diversity in employment and education

Unlike foreign policy, domestic policy only concerns issues within the United States’ borders. There are many areas of concern that domestic policy covers, including:

  • Healthcare
  • Law enforcement
  • Taxes
  • Natural resources
  • Social welfare

Public Policy Example Involving Gun Control

One of the most hotly contested examples of public policy is gun control, and the arguments and controversies that surround it. Take, for instance, the case of District of Colombia v. Heller, which the U.S. Supreme Court heard in 2008. This case became a landmark case in the fight for, and in this case against, gun control.


Dick Heller was a special police officer in Washington D.C. He applied for a one-year license for a handgun, as he wished to keep one at home, but he did not receive approval. He then sued the District of Colombia, seeking an injunction against the District of Colombia Code, saying it was a violation of his Second Amendment rights.

The Code made it illegal for the state to register handguns to individuals. However, under this Code, the Chief of Police could issue one-year licenses like the one Heller applied for. For some reason, though, the Chief ultimately denied Heller’s request which lead, in part, to this lawsuit.

Decision and Appeal

Ultimately, the district court dismissed the complaint. Heller then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia, which decided in favor of Heller, and reversed the lower court. The Court held that the Second Amendment protected individuals’ right to keep firearms in their homes for the purpose of self-defense.

Further, the Court referred to the part of the District of Colombia Code that required individuals to only keep firearms at home if the firearms were nonfunctional. The Court stated that such a requirement did, in fact, impede upon an individual’s 2nd Amendment rights.

U.S. Supreme Court

The case made its way before the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. The question for the Court then became: does the District of Columbia Code violate the Second Amendment? The Court ultimately ruled in a 5 – 4 decision that yes, it did. The Court held that individuals should read the Second Amendment in such a way as to give it the plainest meaning possible. If they do this, then the Second Amendment “guarantee[s] an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.”

Therefore, banning handguns – weapons that people typically use for protection – and prohibiting handguns from being functional in the home, an area that undoubtedly needs protecting, indeed violates the Second Amendment.

In Their Own Words

With Justice Antonin Scalia speaking for the majority, the Court wrote, in part:

“The handgun ban and the trigger-lock requirement (as applied to self-defense) violate the Second Amendment. The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of ‘arms’ that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense. Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster.

Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional. Because Heller conceded at oral argument that the D. C. licensing law is permissible if it is not enforced arbitrarily and capriciously, the Court assumes that a license will satisfy his prayer for relief and does not address the licensing requirement. Assuming he is not disqualified from exercising Second Amendment rights, the District must permit Heller to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.