- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

A divided Supreme Court struck down the District’s three-decade-old ban on handguns Thursday, ruling for the first time that the Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own guns so they can protect themselves at home.

The landmark 5-4 decision is certain to renew the fierce national debate over gun control, as cities and states look for alternatives to conquer gun violence without running afoul of the court’s ruling.

Closer to home, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty vowed to enact a registration process that would allow the District to regulate gun ownership, while an emboldened National Rifle Association - the Northern Virginia-based gun lobby that helped make overturning the D.C. ban a cause celebre - set its sights on new legal fights to free gun owners from government restrictions.

“Our Founding Fathers wrote and intended the Second Amendment to be an individual right,”said Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, who called the court’s ruling “a great moment in American history.”

“The Second Amendment as an individual right now becomes a real permanent part of American constitutional law,” he said.

In the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled for the first time since the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 that the Founding Fathers intended for individuals also to own guns when they wrote into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that “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.”

“Undoubtedly, some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem,” Justice Scalia wrote. “That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”

Although the majority opinion pointed out that prior courts found prohibitions against carrying concealed weapons legal under the Second Amendment or “state analogues,” Justice Scalia only briefly mentioned the historical use of firearms for recreational purposes such as hunting.

However, the justices appeared to leave untouched many other regulations involving guns, making clear that the government can regulate gun ownership for the public’s safety.

“Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms 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,” Justice Scalia wrote.

The ruling elicited a wealth of opinions from lawmakers, the White House, presidential candidates and lobbyists on both sides of the gun-control issue.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat expected to win the party’s presidential nomination, said the court’s ruling endorsed his view that the Second Amendment provides for individual gun ownership while also allowing for “common-sense, effective safety measures.”

“I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne,” he said. “Today’s decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and his party’s presumptive nominee, applauded the decision and called gun ownership a “sacred” right.

“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,” he said, referring to a comment made by Mr. Obama.

The gun ban case had divided the Bush administration. Solicitor General Paul G. Clement - concerned about how the ruling might impact existing federal laws - had urged the justices to return the case to a lower court for more consideration, while Vice President Dick Cheney signed on with congressional lawmakers asking the court to overturn the ban.

White House officials said, “The president strongly agrees with the Supreme Court’s historic decision today that the Second Amendment protects the individual right of Americans to keep and bear arms.”

The District of Columbia v. Heller case resulted in nearly 70 amicus briefs being filed on behalf of more than 320 members of Congress, 36 states and other interested parties on both sides of the case - some of whom were concerned about the consequences elsewhere in the country if the District’s laws were struck down.

In the wake of the court’s ruling, the NRA announced that it will file suits challenging gun laws in Chicago and San Francisco.

“That’s something we are preparing for, as early as tomorrow,” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, told The Washington Times.

Anthony Girese, counsel to Robert T. Johnson - the district attorney for Bronx County in New York - said the court was able to “carve out some areas” of the law where guns can be restricted but did not decide what standard of review to use when deciding if a prohibition is reasonable.

That likely will lead to challenges on everything from gun laws to prior criminal convictions to firearm-licensing provisions, Mr. Girese said.

“There’s a lot left unsettled by this decision,” he said.

Benna Ruth Solomon, deputy corporation counsel for Chicago - which enacted a ban similar to the District’s in 1982 - said a challenge to her city’s laws would first have to overcome prior court rulings that state the Second Amendment does not apply to state and local governments.

The amendment applies to the District because it is a federal enclave, Ms. Solomon said.

“Unless and until the court changes that interpretation, the restrictions of the Second Amendment as interpreted today will not apply to state and local governments,” she said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined in affirming the decision.

Justice Scalia argued in an extended historical and grammatical treatise that the intent of the Founding Fathers, structure of the Second Amendment and similar language contained in state constitutions provide for an individual right to bear arms.

He also argued that the right to self-defense is inherent to the Second Amendment right to gun ownership.

“Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home ‘the most preferred firearm in the nation to keep and use for protection of one´s home and family,’ … would fail constitutional muster,” Justice Scalia wrote.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter dissented. Justice Stevens wrote that a conclusion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership still “does not tell us anything about the scope of that right.”

He said the majority opinion “stakes its holding on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the amendment’s text.”

“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,” Justice Stevens wrote.

Justice Breyer, who authored a separate dissenting opinion, said he disagreed with the majority in part because the District’s gun law is “permissible.”

“That is so because the District´s regulation, which focuses upon the presence of handguns in high-crime urban areas, represents a permissible legislative response to a serious, indeed life-threatening, problem,” he wrote.

The ruling was subsequently cheered by gun-rights activists and lamented by gun-control proponents. Alan Gura, the lawyer who argued against the ban on behalf of respondent Dick Anthony Heller, called Thursday “a fantastic day for civil rights in our country.”

He warned against new efforts by cities or states to restrict gun ownership in ways that might conflict with the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“They’re potentially stepping on an important civil right,” Mr. Gura said.

Mr. Heller, 66, said minutes after the ruling that he would register to purchase a handgun “very soon.”

“I’m very happy that now I’m able to defend myself and my household in my own home,” Mr. Heller, a special police officer, said during a press conference in front of the court.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling but said it leaves open possibilities for laws on licensing, registration and sales to restrict gun ownership.

“This opinion still allows common-sense gun-control laws,” he said. “What the court did today was that they limited the extremes.”

The ruling also will force the District to revise its statutes regulating guns, although officials emphasized that the decision did not affect all of the city’s firearms prohibitions and does not entitle anyone to carry firearms outside the home.

Mr. Fenty said the city’s laws will remain intact for several weeks until a court injunction is issued that will officially prevent the District from enforcing the gun ban. He has directed the Metropolitan Police Department to develop a process for allowing “qualified citizens” to register their handguns.

“I´m disappointed in the court´s ruling and believe introducing more handguns into the District will mean more handgun violence,” said Mr. Fenty, Democrat. “But I want to emphasize that at this moment, our gun laws remain in effect. It may be several weeks before there are changes to announce.”

The District’s gun ban, the most stringent in the nation, was passed in June 1976 in a 12-1 vote by the D.C. Council.

It prohibits city residents, with few exceptions, from registering handguns and keeping them in the city. It also requires legal firearms such as shotguns and rifles to be stored disassembled or bound with trigger locks.

In February 2003, Mr. Heller and five other residents sued the city in U.S. District Court, hoping to win the right to keep handguns and an assembled shotgun in their homes for self-defense.

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, appointed to his post by President Clinton in 1994, dismissed the case about a year later. However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed the decision in March of last year with a 2-1 ruling.


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