The Supreme Court set the stage Tuesday for a historic ruling on whether the fiercely debated 2nd Amendment protects the rights of Americans to keep handguns at home.
The justices said they would review an appeals court decision that struck down a 31-year-old ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. The case will be heard early next year and decided by next summer.
While outright bans on the private possession of guns are rare, many cities and states regulate firearms. If the high court rules in favor of gun owners, the decision could open the door to challenges to regulations and restrictions on firearms across the nation.
In their appeal, District of Columbia officials say their ban on easily concealed handguns dates back to 1858. And they argue handguns are involved in most violent crime. Under the city ordinance passed in 1976, residents may keep shotguns or hunting rifles at home, but these weapons must be disassembled or have trigger locks. Handguns are illegal, except in the hands of police officers.
Six city residents challenged the ordinance as unconstitutional and said it denied them the right to have “functional firearms” at home for self defense.
The 2nd Amendment is among the best known parts of the Constitution. Its familiar words say “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” These words seem to protect the right to have a gun, just as the 1st Amendment protects the rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.
In the past, many judges have dismissed the 2nd Amendment as archaic and limited to protecting a state’s authority to maintain “a well-regulated militia,” a phrase from the opening clause of the amendment. The 2nd Amendment’s full text is: “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.”
Although it has been hotly debated for years, the 2nd Amendment has had remarkably little impact in the courts. The ruling in March that struck down the D.C. handgun ban marked the first time a federal court had declared that a gun law violated the 2nd Amendment.
In its only ruling dealing directly with the 2nd Amendment, the Supreme Court in 1939 upheld a man’s conviction for transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines and said these weapons had nothing to do with maintaining an effective state militia.
In their appeal, lawyers for D.C. cite this 1939 decision and argue that the words and history of the amendment show it was concerned with state militias, not individuals with guns. For example, the phrase “bear arms” is a military term, they say. The amendment “does not protect a right to own a gun for purely private uses,” they maintain.
Aimed at individuals
But in recent decades, both the National Rifle Assn. and several constitutional scholars have argued the “right to keep and bear arms” was intended from the beginning to protect the rights of individual Americans to defend themselves.
In March, Judge Laurence H. Silberman said it did not make sense to view the 2nd Amendment as a protection for states, not individuals. “The Bill of Rights was almost entirely a declaration of individual rights, and the 2nd Amendment’s inclusion there strongly indicates that it, too, was intended to protect personal liberty,” he wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Among the city residents who challenged the D.C. ban as unconstitutional is Dick Heller, a courthouse security guard who carries a handgun while on duty and wants to keep one at home.
“I want to be able to defend myself and my wife from violent criminals, and the Constitution says I have a right to do that by keeping a gun in my home,” Heller said Tuesday. “The police can’t be everywhere, and they can’t protect everyone all the time.”
In agreeing to hear the case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, the justices issued an order saying they would rule on whether the city’s handgun ban “violates the 2nd Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes.”
Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the NRA, predicted the court would proclaim that gun rights are protected by the Constitution. “I feel confident they will agree with the millions and millions of Americans who always believed this was an individual right. I think they will say the government cannot come between law-abiding citizens and their firearms,” he said Tuesday.
LaPierre said Chicago and New York City also have strict handgun ordinances that could be struck down if the D.C. ban is voided by the high court.
Gun-control advocates said they hoped the Supreme Court would reject what one called “an example of judicial activism at its worst.” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Silberman’s opinion “ignored long-standing Supreme Court precedent, discounted the express language of the 2nd Amendment, and substituted its policy preferences for those of the District’s elected representatives.”
The ruling in the D.C. case will be “the most important decision on guns in nearly 70 years and may be the most important ever regarding the 2nd Amendment,” Helmke said.
But a Supreme Court ruling upholding gun rights would not necessarily void all manner of regulations involving firearms. Silberman’s opinion agreed the government is not “absolutely barred from regulating the use and ownership of pistols. The protections of the 2nd Amendment are subject to the same sort of reasonable restrictions that have been recognized as limiting, for instance, the 1st Amendment.”
Silberman said the law can certainly forbid certain persons, such as felons, from having guns. Moreover, rulings from the 19th century seemed to say “concealed weapons” can be outlawed, he said.
However, it is unreasonable and unconstitutional to forbid citizens from having handguns at home, Silberman concluded.
City officials and their lawyers argue that the D.C. gun regulation is reasonable because it allows residents to have rifles or shotguns. They also argue that the 2nd Amendment only prohibits Congress from passing national restrictions on gun ownership and doesn’t apply to local governments.
Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he hoped the high court would uphold the city’s ordinance. “The council enacted the handgun ban more than 30 years ago because it would reduce handgun violence,” he said. “It has saved many lives since then and will continue to do so if allowed to remain in force.”