June 27, 2008

Gun Ruling Hailed; State Law Offers Firm Protection

By Mike Wereschagin, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jun. 27--It took a little over 200 years, but the Supreme Court on Thursday said what Wayne Lykens has been saying all along: Banning guns is unconstitutional.

Lykens, owner of Island Firearms on Neville Island, welcomed the court's 5-4 decision overturning the ban on handguns in Washington.

"I think it's great they finally realized it and struck (the D.C. ban) down," said Lykens, who opened his store 25 years ago and once, after an attempted robbery, riddled his assailant's pickup truck with small-caliber bullets. "People themselves have a right to protect themselves."

Constitutional law and public opinion experts said the court's decision probably won't have much effect in Pennsylvania. They said the large number of gun owners, combined with wording in the state Constitution that's less ambiguous than the U.S. Constitution, have helped stifle the most far-reaching attempts at gun control.

Joe Grace hopes they're right.

The president of CeaseFirePA, a Philadelphia-based gun control advocacy group, said he was heartened by Justice Antonin Scalia's statement in the majority opinion that, "like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited." The decision "should not be taken to cast doubt" on laws such as those banning gun ownership by felons or on school grounds, Scalia wrote.

"We think that's really significant," Grace said. CeaseFirePA plans to continue lobbying for a law requiring gun owners to tell police if their guns are stolen, and restrictions limiting people to one gun purchase a month. "I think that's exactly the kind of reasonable restriction that does not take away anybody's right to own a handgun."

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a staunch opponent of gun control, agreed that the Second Amendment right wasn't universal, but said the decision should give no comfort to gun control advocates.

"This decision sets them back decades from what they've been trying to do," Metcalfe said.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who has tried to persuade the General Assembly to tighten gun laws, had not read Scalia's opinion but was "disappointed" the court overturned Washington's gun ban.

"He believes that it will make it easier for criminals to get their hands on guns and is concerned about the long-term effects," said spokesman Chuck Ardo.

Pennsylvania laws probably won't be affected by the decision, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Duquesne University.

The state Constitution lists it as an individual right, and public opinion polls consistently show scant concern among those outside Philadelphia for curbing gun violence.

A Susquehanna Poll last month showed only 4 percent of people statewide ranked reducing gun violence as a top concern. In Philadelphia, that number rose to 29 percent, compared to 2 percent in Western Pennsylvania, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

"It's just not on the radar screen of most Pennsylvanians, to any great extent," said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research.

If anything, interest in owning a gun is growing in the region, said Todd Edmiston, owner of A & S Indoor Pistol Range in Youngwood.

"As far as gun sales, sportsmen, hunting, things like that, Pennsylvania has been one of the larger states for many years," Edmiston said. Interest in shooting is growing fastest among women, he said. "It's just growing up in the area. Hunters, people who legally and safely use guns -- it gets passed down."

Quotes on Gun Ruling

"As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of 'arms' that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose. The prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family and property is most acute. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home 'the most preferred firearm in the nation to keep and use for protection of one's home and family,' would fail constitutional muster."

-- Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority

"Undoubtedly, some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of the nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."

-- Scalia's concluding remarks

"Until today, it has been understood that legislatures may regulate the civilian use and misuse of firearms so long as they do not interfere with the preservation of a well-regulated militia. The Court's announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms for private purposes upsets that settled understanding, but leaves for future cases the formidable task of defining the scope of permissible regulations."

-- Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent


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