Supreme Court Strikes a Blow to Local Gun Bans
WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court declared Monday that gun owners may challenge state and city regulations as a violation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms. The decision in the Chicago case opens the door to new lawsuits against gun restrictions nationwide.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices reversed a lower court ruling that had upheld a Chicago handgun ban based on the view that the Second Amendment does not apply to state and municipal action.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito stressed the "fundamental" nature of the right to keep and bear arms. He rejected arguments from Chicago and other large cities (some named below) that public safety concerns should override a broad reading of the Second Amendment extending it beyond actions of the federal government to state laws.
Alito said "there is intense disagreement on the question whether the private possession of guns in the home increases or decreases gun deaths and injuries." He added: "The right to keep and bear arms (hellip) is not the only constitutional right that has controversial public safety implications."
He emphasized that Monday's ruling followed directly from the court's 2008 landmark decision that declared - for the first time - an individual right to bear arms and protection from certain firearms regulations in federal enclaves. That 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, arose from a handgun ban in Washington, D.C.
In Monday's case of McDonald v. City of Chicago, the four liberal justices dissented. Reading part of his dissenting statement from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected a right to keep guns for self-defense, as the Chicago challengers had asserted, and Breyer said the new ruling would interfere with legislative efforts nationwide to control firearms and violence.
Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Thomas broke from the others on the legal rationale.
With Breyer in dissent were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The decision came on a busy, emotion-filled last day of the 2009-2010 term. Roberts opened the session by expressing sympathy for the death Sunday of Martin Ginsburg, the husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the end of the session, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, Roberts saluted Stevens, who is retiring this week after nearly 35 years.
"Your decision to retire saddens each of us in distinct ways," Roberts told Stevens, 90. "Whether in majority, separate concurrence, or dissent, you have brought rigor and integrity to the resolution of the most difficult issues."
Several lawyers in the audience wore bow ties, as a separate tribute to the Chicago native who always sported the neckwear.
Chicago's handgun ban was the only one of its kind in the nation, but several other cities, including New York, have registration requirements and other handgun limitations likely to be targeted next. Several large metropolitan cities, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland, had urged the court not to rule against Chicago, saying they need flexibility on gun laws to solve problems with violence.
The United States Conference of Mayors had similarly asked the justices not to undercut cities' ability to enact firearms regulations. The conference and other groups suggested New York regulations likely would be targeted next. In New York, state law prohibits possession of a handgun without a license, and New York City has additional permit requirements for the possession of a handgun.
Monday's case, brought by Otis McDonald and other Chicagoans who said they wanted to keep handguns in their home to protect themselves, presented the second round of high-stakes litigation over the breadth of the Second Amendment.
The city of Chicago had argued that firearms violence was of such a magnitude that the court should not extend its 2008 decision finding individual gun rights.
The overriding legal question was whether the Second Amendment's right to bear arms could be likened to, for example, the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and the Fourth Amendment's shield against unreasonable searches and seizures and applied to state and city action. Or, if the Second Amendment - because it involves a right to possess an item designed to kill or cause injury - is in a class of its own.
The high court rejected the notion of an exception for the Second Amendment and said "a provision of the Bill of Rights that protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective applies equally to the federal government and the states."
Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, which had sided with the Chicago challengers, called Monday's decision, "vindication for the great majority of American citizens who have always believed the Second Amendment was an individual right and freedom worth defending."
Kristen Rand, the Violence Policy Center's legislative director, says the decision will have dire consequences.
"People will die because of this decision," she says. "It is a victory only for the gun lobby and America's fading firearms industry."
Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman predicted immediately after the ruling, "Now that the Supreme Court has clarified that the Second Amendment applies to the states, there are likely a significant number of state criminal defendants who will now start urging state courts to decide that the Second Amendment should block some state prosecutions based on gun possession and use."