Justices agree on right to own guns
Justices agree on right to own guns
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer 25 minutes
WASHINGTON - Americans have a right to own guns,
Supreme Court justices declared Tuesday in a historic
and lively debate that could lead to the most
significant interpretation of the Second Amendment
since its ratification two centuries ago.
Governments have a right to regulate those firearms, a
majority of justices seemed to agree. But there was
less apparent agreement on the case they were arguing:
whether Washington's ban on handguns goes too far.
The justices dug deeply into arguments on one of the
Constitution's most hotly debated provisions as
demonstrators shouted slogans outside. Guns are an
American right, argued one side. "Guns kill,"
responded the other.
Inside the court, at the end of a session extended
long past the normal one hour, a majority of justices
appeared ready to say that Americans have a "right to
keep and bear arms" that goes beyond the amendment's
reference to service in a militia.
Several justices were openly skeptical that the
District of Columbia's 32-year-old handgun ban,
perhaps the strictest in the nation, could survive
under that reading of the Constitution.
"What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?"
Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
Walter Dellinger, representing the district, replied
that Washington residents could own rifles and
shotguns and could use them for protection at home.
"What is reasonable about a total ban on possession is
that it's a ban only on the possession of one kind of
weapon, of handguns, that's considered especially
dangerous," Dellinger said.
Justice Stephen Breyer appeared reluctant to
second-guess local officials.
Is it "unreasonable for a city with a very high crime
rate ... to say no handguns here?" Breyer asked.
Alan Gura, representing a Washington resident who
challenged ban, said, "It's unreasonable and it fails
any standard of review."
The court has not conclusively interpreted the Second
Amendment since its ratification in 1791. The
amendment reads: "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
The basic issue for the justices is whether the
amendment protects an individual's right to own guns
no matter what, or whether that right is somehow tied
to service in a state militia.
A key justice, Anthony Kennedy, seemed to settle that
question early on when he said the Second Amendment
gives "a general right to bear arms." He is likely to
be joined by Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito,
Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas a majority of the
Gun rights proponents were encouraged.
"What I heard from the court was the view that the
D.C. law, which prohibits good people from having a
firearm ... to defend themselves against bad people is
not reasonable and unconstitutional," National Rifle
Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre
said after leaving the court.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said he hoped the court
would leave the ban in place and not vote for a
compromise that would, for example, allow handguns in
homes but not in public places. "More guns anywhere in
the District of Columbia is going to lead to more
crime. And that is why we stand so steadfastly against
any repeal of our handgun ban," the mayor said after
attending the arguments.
A decision that defines the amendment's meaning would
be significant by itself. But the court also has to
decide whether Washington's ban can stand and how to
evaluate other gun control laws.
The justices have many options, including upholding a
federal appeals court ruling that struck down the ban.
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush
administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, supported
the individual right but urged the justices not to
decide the other question. Instead, Clement said the
court should say that governments may impose
reasonable restrictions, including federal laws that
ban certain types of weapons.
Clement wants the justices to order the appeals court
to re-evaluate the Washington law. He did not take a
position on it.
This issue has caused division within the
administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney taking
a harder line than the official position at the court.
In addition to the handgun ban, Washington also has a
trigger lock requirement for other guns that raised
some concerns Tuesday.
"When you hear somebody crawling in your bedroom
window, you can run to your gun, unlock it, load it
and then fire?" Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Roberts, who has two young children, suggested at one
point that trigger locks might be reasonable.
"There is always a risk that the children will get up
and grab the firearm and use it for some purpose other
than what the Second Amendment was designed to
protect," he said.
On the other hand, he, too, wondered about the
practical effect of removing a lock in an emergency.
"So then you turn on the lamp, you pick up your
reading glasses," Roberts said to laughter.
Dellinger said he opened the lock in three seconds,
although he conceded that was in daylight.
While the arguments raged inside, dozens of protesters
mingled with tourists and waved signs saying "Ban the
Washington elitists, not our guns" or "The NRA helps
criminals and terrorists buy guns."
Members of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
chanted "guns kill" as followers of the Second
Amendment Sisters and Maryland Shall Issue.Org shouted
"more guns, less crime."
The City Council that adopted the ban said it was
justified because "handguns have no legitimate use in
the purely urban environment of the District of
Dick Anthony Heller, 65, an armed security guard, sued
the district after it rejected his application to keep
a handgun at his home for protection in the same
Capitol Hill neighborhood as the court.
The last Supreme Court ruling on the topic came in
1939 in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a sawed-off
shotgun. Constitutional scholars disagree over what
that case means but agree it did not squarely answer
the question of individual versus collective rights.
Roberts said at his confirmation hearing that the
correct reading of the Second Amendment was "still
very much an open issue."