Justices back gun owners

Court upholds right to keep weapons at home

June 27, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

In a historic ruling yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right for individuals to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. It was the first major high court ruling on the Second Amendment.

The 5-4 decision came in a closely watched challenge to a 32-year-old Washington law that prohibited residents from keeping any kind of handgun or shotguns and rifles without trigger locks in their homes - the toughest gun law in the nation.

Although the high court's decision will have no immediate impact on gun laws beyond the district's borders - including state gun control laws like those in Maryland - constitutional scholars and advocates on both sides of the gun debate predicted a flood of litigation testing first whether the Second Amendment protection should be applied to state statutes, and then, in a second wave, whether specific state and local gun laws infringe upon an individual's right to bear arms.

"It's a good day for D.C. and a good day, I think, for the country," said Robert A. Levy, a multimillionaire and senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute who bankrolled the case and recruited plaintiffs to sue the district over the handgun ban.

"I think the city will be a safer place because of this," he added. "Despite all the talk from government officials saying this makes life in the district riskier, I think, quite to the contrary ... it will give citizens the right and ability to defend themselves. Right now, all we have is criminals who think they have carte blanche to do whatever they want."

The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, made clear that the ruling does not endanger long-standing laws that restrict the carrying of concealed weapons, that regulate gun sales, that prohibit unusually dangerous firearms and that ban the possession of guns by felons and the mentally disabled and in certain locations, such as schools and government buildings.

"There is much that is reassuring about the majority opinion because the court made it crystal clear that reasonable gun restrictions, enacted to promote public safety that are not as restrictive as the D.C. laws, would not raise these constitutional issues," said Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This decision gives the constitutional green light to a wide range of life-saving gun laws."

In Maryland, a patchwork of gun laws regulates the sale, possession and use of firearms within the state, from restricting the ease with which individuals can purchase firearms to requiring every handgun to be sold with a child-safety lock. In addition, state law preempts local governments' ability to regulate the possession, sale, manufacture, transportation and carrying of firearms within Maryland cities and counties.

Although the ruling could prompt legal challenges to, for example, Maryland's trigger lock requirement, Henigan, of the Brady Center, said those lawsuits would likely fail. The high court's opinion specifically addresses the issue, saying that the ruling does not "suggest the invalidity of laws regulating the storage of firearms to prevent accidents."

The case revolved around the curiously phrased and oddly punctuated 27 words 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."

Gun-rights advocates have long argued that the constitutional amendment guarantees an individual's right to own firearms. But gun-control proponents - as well as nearly every court that weighed a Second Amendment challenge before this one - interpreted the wording to grant only a collective right to bear arms as part of a state-organized military force.

Answering the 217-year-old constitutional question, Scalia wrote, "Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."

Signing on to the majority opinion were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who attended Howard University during the 1970s, when rising violence led the district to enact the handgun ban, expressed frustration with the high court's decision.

"As one who lives in the inner city of Baltimore and who has actually witnessed young people from time to time with guns in their belts or bulging from their jeans, the decision is disappointing," said the attorney, a Baltimore Democrat. Noting the closeness of the decision, he added, "If we had one more person on that court who perhaps had more of a sensitivity to what is happening in urban areas ... perhaps the decision would have been different."

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