Arms and the court

November 21, 2007

For those in favor of restricting handguns - as we surely are - the agreement by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a long-standing handgun ban in the city of Washington would seem to justify a cautious sigh of relief. It raises the hope that the justices will reverse a disastrous federal appeals court ruling invalidating the ban. But it's hard to predict how, or even whether, the justices will ultimately rule.

In March, a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared that Washington's three-decades-old law banning handguns in homes - while allowing rifles or shotguns - was unconstitutional. By finding a personal, private right to keep and bear arms in the Second Amendment, the federal appeals court for D.C. broke new ground.

The majority opinion was at odds with several other appeals courts that have generally applied the amendment to states and militias, as well as a nearly 70-year-old Supreme Court precedent. In addition, the opinion was a severe blow to sensible community and government efforts to promote public safety in cities such as Washington and Baltimore where gun violence, in the form of fatal and nonfatal shootings, persists.

Those are certainly good reasons for Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to urge the Supreme Court to take the case. Washington's law, passed in 1976, prohibits all handguns unless they were registered before that year. Long a target of anti-gun-control groups, the law has been under legal attack for about four years by six D.C. residents (some of whom have since lost standing to pursue the case), who argued that they should be allowed to keep guns in their homes for self-defense.

It's not unusual for the Supreme Court to try to bring clarity to an issue that has split the lower courts. But the split among the appeals courts on this issue is so - justifiably - lopsided that this would be a good occasion for the court to speak with the unanimous voice that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. indicated during his confirmation hearing he would try to achieve - and thoroughly reject the D.C. federal appeals court's reasoning and ruling.

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