Landmark Ruling Ignites Challenges to Firearms Laws
By Joan Biskupic and Kevin Johnson
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s historic decision Thursday carving out an individual right to gun ownership immediately cast doubt on gun restrictions nationwide, as firearms-rights advocates prepared to file a new round of lawsuits testing the scope of the ruling.
Hours after the 5-4 ruling that struck down a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C., gun rights supporters signaled they will challenge gun restrictions in cities and suburbs across the nation.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, established for the first time in U.S. history that the Constitution’s Second Amendment gives individuals the right to keep guns at home for self-defense. Yet Scalia noted that a person’s right to gun ownership is not unlimited. He said it would not likely override bans on concealed weapons; laws that prohibit felons and the mentally ill from possessing firearms; or those that ban firearms in government buildings and schools.
Beyond that, the court did not address what types of regulations would survive legal challenges. It did not say, for example, whether people have a right to carry guns in their neighborhoods, or keep them in their cars on the way to and from work.
Nevertheless, Thursday’s ruling by the conservative-majority court represented a huge breakthrough for gun rights advocates who have long wanted the high court to confirm that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals — and not just government militias — the right to bear arms.
“This is big,” said Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, who cast the ruling as “the opening salvo” in a series of planned legal challenges aimed at ensuring individual gun rights.
Within days, he said, the NRA will file lawsuits against handgun restrictions in at least six cities: San Francisco, Chicago and the Illinois communities of Wilmette, Evanston, Oak Park and Morton Grove.
San Francisco bans guns in public housing. The other five cities ban handgun ownership, with a few exceptions for police and other public safety officials.
Wilmette, Ill., officials said Thursday that they would suspend the village’s 19-year-old handgun ban until the village council could review the court’s ruling. Wilmette counsel Timothy Frenzer said the last time a case was brought under the ordinance was in 2004.
In Chicago, which has had a freeze on handgun registrations since 1982, officials vowed to continue enforcing one of the nation’s strictest ordinances beyond the D.C. law the high court rejected.
“We do expect these legal challenges,” said Benna Ruth Solomon, Chicago’s deputy corporation counsel. “But we will vigorously defend our ordinance.”
In announcing the court majority’s decision before rows of rapt spectators, Scalia stressed an inherent right of self-defense. The ruling was signed by the court’s most conservative justices — Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — and vehemently protested by the court’s more liberal members — John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The decision bucked a trend among lower-court judges, who for decades have said the right “to bear arms” related to service in a militia and did not cover individuals. At issue was the not-so-clear language of the Second Amendment: “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 opinion, Scalia wrote, “The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. Those include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.”
Scalia noted that “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”
The dissenting justices, led by Stevens, scoffed at the majority’s historical analysis of the Second Amendment. “There is no indication that (the amendment’s drafters) intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution,” wrote Stevens, who took the rare step of reading from the bench. He listed eight specific grounds on which he believed the majority was wrong.
Stevens warned the ruling would launch new judicial involvement in an issue he said should be left to legislators. “I fear that the district’s policy choice may well be just the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table,” he wrote.
Disappointment in D.C.
From D.C.’s City Hall to the presidential campaign trail, the ruling stirred emotional responses from both sides of the gun debate.
A somber D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said the decision would have consequences for “the entire country.” He said that “more handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence.”
Fenty said he was directing Police Chief Cathy Lanier to establish new regulations for handgun registration in anticipation of a wave of new gun purchases.
“We will continue vigorously enforcing the District’s other gun-control laws and are considering other ways to protect … citizens against the scourge of gun violence,” Lanier said. The city also bans automatic and semi-automatic weapons, laws that don’t appear to be affected by the ruling.
A short distance down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush issued a statement lauding the “historic” decision as “confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: The Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear firearms.”
The Justice Department was “also pleased that the court recognized that, like other constitutional rights, that individual right is ‘not unlimited,’” spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
The presidential candidates also quickly issued statements supporting the court decision. Yet both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama had to deal with past comments that have put them at odds with gun owners.
McCain upbraided Obama for comments the Democrat made during the primary campaign. “Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today’s ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly,” McCain said.
Obama said he had “always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms.” However, he added: “I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures.”
The McCain campaign called Obama’s position a flip-flop, distributing a long memo that included statements from him and his campaign in which Obama backed some gun-control measures and called the D.C. law constitutional.
In the past, however, McCain also has defied the NRA and other gun advocacy groups by lobbying for legislation that would have required background checks for buyers at gun shows.
Gun rights is a big issue in several key election states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Democrat Al Gore’s support of gun control in 2000 was widely seen as a reason he did not win West Virginia, Arkansas or his home state of Tennessee.
A broad view of ‘militia’
The debate over gun rights — a topic that, like abortion and capital punishment, ignites passions — has long been waged in politics, public opinion and lower courts.
The Supreme Court last considered the reach of the Second Amendment in a 1939 case. It did not rule definitively, but its decision was interpreted by a wide swath of lower-court judges to bar an individual right to guns.
Yet the popular notion of a right to arms persisted, as did gun rights advocates’ efforts to change the landscape as more conservative jurists took the federal bench.
Thursday’s case was brought by Dick Heller, a security guard who wanted a handgun in his Washington, D.C., home for self-defense. Heller had been turned down by D.C. officials under the city’s 1976 ban on handguns in the home.
Breaking with most past lower-court rulings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last year sided with Heller and definitively declared an individual right to own guns. Judge Laurence Silberman, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote the decision.
In affirming the D.C. Circuit’s ruling, the Scalia majority homed in on key words in the two parts of the Second Amendment: the preface that refers to “a well regulated militia” and the clause “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
One key to his ruling was Scalia’s interpretation of a “militia,” which traditionally is a unit outside the regular army and that today could be compared with state National Guard units. He said it covered all able-bodied males acting for the common defense.
“The conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification,” Scalia wrote, “was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty.” He stressed that people carried arms outside of organized militias. Beyond that, Scalia said, the preface puts no limits on the second clause referring to the right of the people to bear arms.
The dissenting justices complained about Scalia’s reasoning and the myriad questions left open by the ruling. Stevens rejected the idea that the Second Amendment’s drafters wanted to limit legislative “authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms” or intended to “enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”
In a separate dissent, Breyer attacked the majority opinion for its lack of standards and its hurdles for officials trying to fight crime. Breyer noted that handguns are involved in most firearms deaths and injuries in the United States.
“I cannot understand how one can take from the elected branches of government the right to decide whether to insist upon a handgun-free urban populace in the city now facing a serious crime problem,” he wrote, criticizing the majority for casting uncertainty over what gun regulations would be permissible.
Scalia said the high court wasn’t providing the last word in the Second Amendment’s reach. “Since this case represents this court’s first in-depth examination of the Second Amendment, one should not expect it to clarify the entire field,” he said.
Contributing: Susan Page, David Jackson and Andrea Stone
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