In a decision that made history the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, voided the Washington D.C. law that prohibited the ownership of handguns. The D.C. law also required that rifles and shotguns owned be kept in a state of disassembly or with a trigger lock deployed. The Court broke along ideological lines in reaching its decision. From the Washington Post:
“We hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The Second Amendment, Scalia said, “surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
The opinion, the last and perhaps most anticipated ruling of the court’s current term, delivered a bold and unmistakable endorsement of the individual right to own guns. At the same time, it raised as many questions as it answered about the ability of government to restrict gun ownership to promote public safety, a point made in detailed rebuttals from the liberals on the court, both from the bench and in two lengthy dissents.
The four dissenters pointed to the potential for the widespread challenge to gun control measures due to this ruling:
Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the decision “threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States,” and he called that a “formidable and potentially dangerous” mission for the courts to undertake. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
From the campaign trail both candidates expressed support for the theory endorsed by the Court here, that the Second Amendment gives a guarantee of a right to individual gun ownership. But that is where the agreement ends. From John McCain:
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, called it a “landmark victory” for Second Amendment rights and criticized his rival’s home town. “Today’s ruling . . . makes clear that other municipalities like Chicago that have banned handguns have infringed on the constitutional rights of Americans,” he said.
I wonder why Senator McCain picked out Chicago? I guess Barack Obama’s home city will be in for some scrutiny. Obama reacted cautiously, but pointed out that while supportive of an individual right in this area, he also recognizes the need for localities to be able to enforce common sense safety measures designed to promote the overall safety of its citizens. From Barack Obama:
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democrats’ all-but-certain nominee, issued a statement saying that “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but 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.”
Justice Scalia sparred heavily with Justice Stevens over the age old argument about the meaning of the second amendment phrase “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.”
Justice Scalia took the position for the majority that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms, and does not solely refer to a need for an organized militia.
Scalia drew on years of scholarly research to conclude that the amendment’s opening clause about the need for a ready militia was only one of the reasons that the Framers recognized what he argued was a preexisting right to arms.
“Does the preface fit with an operative clause that creates an individual right to keep and bear arms?” Scalia wrote. “It fits perfectly.”
Justice Stevens mocked that view, and engaged Scalia in an intellectual tete a tete.
Stevens rebutted Scalia in 46 pages of his own, and the two engaged in a line-by-line battle over the meaning of the amendment. “When each word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia,” Stevens wrote, adding that it meant “no more than that.”
The Court left open some regulatory issues, and Scalia himself limited the depth of effect.
Scalia said the opinion should not be read to cast doubt on “longstanding prohibitions” on gun possession by “felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” He added that the list was not meant to be exhaustive.
He also said the court recognized limitations on the right to keep and carry arms, and he indicated that federal bans on weapons such as machine guns may not be threatened.
I guess that individual right to bear arms stops at the machine gun level. But I wonder why. If the federal government has the authority to abridge your second amendment right to individually own a machine gun, why are localities placed in a different category? I guess I will have to read the decision to see the rationale.