High Court to Examine Local Handgun Laws
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009; 11:45 AM
The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it will decide whether the right to own guns for self-defense, announced by the court last year when it struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, also covers states and other cities with gun-control laws.
The landmark decision in Heller v. District of Columbia did not address the question of whether the Second Amendment extends beyond the federal government and federal enclaves like the District.
The case the court accepted Wednesday concerns the city of Chicago, which bans most handguns.
In the Heller case, the court held for the first time that individuals have a right to gun ownership. Until then, the court had only recognized that the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms" protected a state's ability to maintain a militia.
Other court precedents have held that the Second Amendment restricts only federal law, as was the case with most of the Bill of Rights. Through the years, the court has applied most of the amendments, but not all, to the states, a process called "incorporation." The Heller decision specifically left the question about the Second Amendment for another day.
Alan Gura, the Alexandria lawyer who successfully challenged the District's law, sued the city of Chicago, which has a handgun ban virtually identical to Washington's, plus other restrictions. Ruling in that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said only the Supreme Court can decide whether the Second Amendment applies.
That was the same position a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit took in a Second Amendment challenge to a New York state law. The panel included Sonia Sotomayor, who will now apparently be able to decide the issue as the Supreme Court's newest justice.
Gura, and a group of both conservative and liberal legal scholars who have filed briefs in the Chicago case, argue that that the Second Amendment right should be applied through the 14th Amendment. The court could decide just that issue, or issue a broader ruling that touches on what kinds of restrictions on gun ownership are constitutional.
The Heller decision said some restrictions could meet constitutional standards. Gura said he hoped the justices "issue a definitive ruling" on specific restrictions.
The case, McDonald v. Chicago, will be argued after the first of the year.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Chicago case is "unlikely to have much practical impact on most gun laws regardless of how the Court rules."
"Even if the Court were to hold the Second Amendment applicable to states and localities," he said, "such a ruling is unlikely to change the crucial holding by the Supreme Court in Heller that a wide range of reasonable gun laws are presumptively constitutional, and that the Second Amendment right is narrowly limited to guns in the home for self-defense."