Justices hint at ruling against local gun laws

Chicago case could extend gun rights nationally

March 03, 2010|By David G. Savage | Tribune newspapers

WASHINGTON —

- Most of the Supreme Court justices who two years ago said the Second Amendment protects individual gun rights signaled during arguments Tuesday that they are ready to extend this right nationwide and to use it to strike down some state and local gun regulations.

Since 1982, Chicago has outlawed handguns in the city, even for law-abiding residents who sought to keep them at home. That ordinance was challenged by several city residents, who said it violated their right "to keep and bear arms" under the Second Amendment.

The case forced the high court to confront a question it had never answered: Did the Second Amendment limit only the federal government's ability to regulate guns and state militias, or did it also give citizens a right to challenge state and local restrictions on guns?

All signs Tuesday were that five justices saw the right to bear arms as national in scope and not limited to laws passed in Washington.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy described the individual right to possess a gun as being of "fundamental character," like the right to freedom of speech. "If it is not fundamental, then Heller is wrong," Kennedy said, referring to the decision two years ago that struck down the handgun ban in the District of Columbia. Kennedy was part of the 5-4 majority in that case.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. called it an "extremely important" right in the Constitution. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. echoed the theme that the court had endorsed an individual, nationwide right in their decision two years ago. The fifth member of the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas, did not comment during the argument, but he had been a steady advocate of the Second Amendment.

A ruling striking down the Chicago handgun ban would open the courthouse door to constitutional challenges to all manner of local or state gun regulations. However, the justices may not give much guidance on how far this right extends.

Roberts all but forecast the court would issue an opinion that avoids deciding the harder questions about whether guns can be carried in public as well as kept at home. "We haven't said anything about the content of the Second Amendment," Roberts said at one point. He added that the justices need not rule on whether there is a right to carry a "concealed" weapon.

A lawyer for Chicago argued that there is a long American tradition of permitting states and cities to set gun regulations. For 220 years, gun restrictions "have been a state and local decision," said attorney James A. Feldman. Cities should be permitted to set "reasonable regulations of firearms," he added, noting that Chicagoans are allowed to have rifles and shotguns in their homes.

But he ran into stiff questioning from Scalia and his colleagues.

At one point during the argument, Justice John Paul Stevens suggested the right to bear arms could be limited to homes.

But that idea got no traction with the other justices, and a lawyer representing the National Rifle Association said the court should not adopt a "watered-down version" of the Second Amendment.

It will be several months before the court hands down a decision in the case of McDonald v. Chicago.

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