- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The fate of the District’s 32-year-old ban on handguns — along with the potential validity of other firearm laws across the country — now rests in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court after justices this morning questioned the constitutionality of the city’s stringent gun statutes.

“The court asked a lot of very insightful and interesting questions,” said Alan Gura, a lawyer who argued before the nine justices in favor of upholding a lower-court decision that overturned the ban. “We feel very good about how the argument went and look forward to this case being resolved.”

The case — District of Columbia v. Heller — is the first time in roughly 70 years that the country’s highest court has considered the Second Amendment of the Constitution, and whether it establishes an individual’s right to own firearms or only permits their possession by persons associated with a state-regulated militia.

The legal arguments touched on everything from the specific phrasing of the 27-word Second Amendment to the historical context of its adoption and whether or not the District’s laws — which prevent most residents from legally keeping handguns in the city and requiring other firearms to be stored bound and disassembled — are “reasonable” restrictions under the Constitution.

Former Solicitor General Walter E. Dellinger III, who argued on behalf of the District, said the amendment was meant to allow states to form well-regulated militias and assure their security, and that the city’s laws are reasonable restrictions because they ban only one type of weapon.

Chief Justice John Roberts, however, asked if a similar ban on books would be reasonable if citizens were still allowed to read newspapers.

“What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?” the chief justice said. Justice Antonin Scalia also noted that British laws adopted before the Bill of Rights prohibited certain types of people from bearing arms, and disagreed with Mr. Dellinger’s assertion that the appellate court’s ruling created an “absolutist” position that could prevent federal weapons bans.

“I didn’t read it that way. I don’t know that a lot of people have machine guns or armor-piercing bullets,” Justice Scalia said, to which Mr. Dellinger responded that there are about 100,000 machine guns present in the country.

“But how many people are in the country?” the justice retorted.

Mr. Gura and U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement also argued during the court’s session, which lasted more than 90 minutes, and every justice but Clarence Thomas asked a question of the attorneys.

The court’s decision is expected by June.

By 11 a.m., the line that started to form Sunday evening held dozens of tourists who stopped to see the Supreme Court or stopped because of cameras and conversations that sometimes turned to debate.

Alex Reynolds, 23, of Alexandria came to the Supreme Court building Monday at 1 p.m. with a lawn chair in hand to hold a spot in line for two of the case’s original plaintiffs in lower courts. He said a handful of law students and others had waited since about 5:30 p.m. Sunday evening.

“I was number 29 in line,” Mr. Reynolds said Tuesday, sitting on the sidewalk in the chilly morning air using the coats of lawyers inside the building as blankets. Robyn Steinlauf, 27, came from Virginia to join 30 others from the Brady Campaign, whose signs held their argument: “Sensible Gun Laws Save Lives.”

Ms. Steinlauf was able to hear a “tease — three or five minutes” of the hearing after a long wait in line. She said she thinks the Constitution meant “militia.” “It’s not a right for everyone,” she said.

Jeff Knox, director of the Virginia-based Firearms Coalition, was hopeful after the hearing that the ban would be overturned.

“You can’t bet on the [Supreme Court Justices], but I think it’s gonna be limited in our favor,” Mr. Knox said. “The right to bear arms is an individual right, and now [the Court] will have to sort through the reasonable restrictions involved.”

Staff writer David C. Lipscomb and intern Sterling Meyers contributed to this report.

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