Court: A constitutional right to a gun
Answering a 217-year old constitutional question, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have a gun, at least in one’s home. The Court, splitting 5-4, struck down a District of Columbia ban on handgun possession. Although times have changed since 1791, Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority, “it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”
Examining the words of the Amendment, the Court concluded “we find they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation” — in other words, for self-defense. “The inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right,” it added.
The individual right interpretation, the Court said, “is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment,” going back to 17th Century England, as well as by gun rights laws in the states before and immediately after the Amendment was put into the U.S. Constitution.
What Congress did in drafting the Amendment, the Court said, was “to codify a pre-existing right, rather than to fashion a new one.”
Justice Scalia’s opinion stressed that the Court was not casting doubt on long-standing bans on carrying a concealed gun or on gun possession by felons or the mentally retarded, on laws barring guns from schools or government buildings, and laws putting conditions on gun sales.
The Court took no position on whether the Second Amendment right restricts only federal government powers, or also curbs the power of states to regulate guns. In a footnote, Scalia said that the issue of “incorporating” the Second into the Fourteenth Amendment, thus applying it to the states, was “a question not presented by this case.” But the footnote said decisions in 1886 and 1894 had reaffirmed that the Amendment “applies only to the Federal Government.” Whether the Court will reopen that issue thus will depend upon future cases.
The Court in essence demolished the most recent precedent on the Second Amendment — the ruling in U.S. v. Miller in 1939, relied upon heavily by advocates of gun control (and by the dissenting Justices on Thursday). The opinion tartly remarked: “It is particularly wrongheaded to read Miller for more than what it said, because the case did not even purport to be a thorough examination of the Second Amendment.”
In District of Columbia v. Heller (07-290), the Court nullified two provisions of the city of Washington’s strict 1976 gun control law: a flat ban on possessing a gun in one’s home, and a requirement that any gun — except one kept at a business — must be unloaded and disassembled or have a trigger lock in place. The Court said it was not passing on a part of the law requiring that guns be licensed. It said that issuing a license to a handgun owner, so the weapon can be used at home, would be a sufficient remedy for the Second Amendment violation of denying any access to a handgun.
While the declaration of the individual right was clear-cut, as was the decision’s nullification of key parts of the Washington, D.C., law, the Court did not lay down a standard for judging the constitutionality of any other federal laws — an omission that the dissenters attacked strongly. Even so, the opinion made it clear that, whatever ultimate test emerge, it probably would be a tough one to meet, at least when self-defense is at issue. As Justice Scalia put it, whatever remains for “future evaluation” about the strength of the right, “it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
Justice Scalia’s recitation from the bench of the majority’s reasoning continued for 16 minutes. Justice John Paul Stevens followed, for seven minutes, summarizing the reasons for two dissenting opinions — his and one written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The decision was the final one of the Term and, after issuing it, the Court recessed for the summer, to return on Monday, Oct. 6. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said that concluding orders on pending cases will be released by the Court Clerk at 10 a.m. Friday.