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Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The United States Supreme Court, for the first time, has ruled that citizens have a right to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. The court was sharply divided, 5-4.

In the majority: Justices Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts. Dissenting were Justices Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter. In a moment, we'll get reaction from Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. First, though, the ruling itself. It struck down a ban on handguns that has been in place in the District of Columbia for 32 years.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Wrapping up the court term today, the justices almost literally issued one final bang. With scattershot imprecision, they set up a large target for future court challenges to gun restrictions across the country. National Rifle Association chief lobbyist, Chris Cox.

Mr. CHRIS COX (Chief Lobbyist, National Rifle Association): This fight is only beginning.

TOTENBERG: And yet, today's Supreme Court ruling is relatively limited, at least for now. The immediate issue before the court was a total ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. It was challenged by a security guard who wanted to keep his gun in his home.

To decide the case, the justices had to rule directly on the meaning of the Second Amendment, a provision with only 27 words: 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.

For most of the last century, the courts have interpreted that provision as a collective right associated with arms for military service. But today, after decades of effort by gun rights activists, the court declared the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right aimed, at the very least, at citizens protecting home and hearth.

Writing for the five-justice court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said, handguns are the preferred weapon of self-defense in part because a handgun, quote, "can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police." A total ban like the District of Columbia's, he said, is unconstitutional.

However, Scalia went on to suggest a string of limitations on that right. Nothing in our opinion, he said, should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, nor should it cast doubt on laws banning guns in places like schools and government buildings, or laws that impose conditions and qualifications on the sale of guns.

Scalia acknowledged that the court today was not setting out the full scope of what regulations are and are not constitutional. Indeed, he conceded, the court was not even establishing a clear guide or standards for evaluating what are reasonable restrictions on gun ownership and use. That leaves open dozens, if not hundreds, of questions to be answered by the courts in the coming years.

Today's decision applies only to federal laws since the District of Columbia is a federal enclave. So gun rights activists are expected first to challenge state and local bans or near bans on handgun ownership - in Chicago and its suburbs, for instance - to see if the Second Amendment applies to the states.

But there are dozens of other unresolved challenges expected - challenges to waiting periods for buying a gun, bans on gun ownership in public housing projects, bans on gun ownership for people who've had restraining orders issued against them in domestic violent situations. Criminal defense lawyers are expected to challenge sentencing enhancements based on gun possession. The list goes on and on.

Gun rights activist David Hardy.

Mr. DAVID HARDY (Gun Rights Activist): Registration systems? Don't know. Pistol permits? Don't know.

TOTENBERG: Nor did the courts say whether certain kinds of assault weapons can be banned. Again, David Hardy.

Mr. HARDY: If it's a weapon that is not in common use, then it can be banned. So by that, I would think we're talking more like artillery. If you're talking semiautomatic, sub, almost everybody's got a few.

TOTENBERG: The court's opinion says only that historical tradition would seem to support a ban on, quote, "dangerous and unusual weapons." Elsewhere, there's language that suggests a ban might well be permissible on fully automatic assault weapons, an M16, for an instance, with which the triggerman can spray hundreds of bullets by holding down the trigger, as contrasted with a semi-automatic that requires each bullet to be fired separately.

Even questions about whether armor-piercing bullets can be banned are not resolved by today's ruling, according to Larry Pratt, director of Gun Owners of America.

Mr. LARRY PRATT (Director, Gun Owners of America): Well, that's a distinction without a difference, to go after an ammunition ban, say well, that's not a gun. Well, actually, it's to keep and bear arms, and I think we can plausibly argue that ammunition is part of having arms.

TOTENBERG: San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris says today's court decision will lead to years of confusion.

Ms. KAMALA HARRIS (District Attorney, San Francisco): In my experience as a career prosecutor, I've come across some very creative defense attorneys. And I am sure that this ruling today is going to give them yet another reason to come in court and say that their client should not be prosecuted. And I think that they're going to have a pretty good argument because of what was not addressed in this opinion.

TOTENBERG: George Mason University law professor Nelson Lund echoes that sentiment.

Professor NELSON LUND (Law, George Mason University): There's a very wide door open to challenging restrictions. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions after this decision.

TOTENBERG: But Miami Police Chief John Timoney said that while the court battles go on in the coming years, the effect of today's ruling will be immediate. When the federal ban on assault weapons expired a few years ago, he said, Miami saw an immediate glut of such weapons coming from Eastern Europe, so much so that the price per weapon went down dramatically.

Timoney began his work as a policeman on the beat in New York in the 1960s.

Chief JOHN TIMONEY (Miami Police): I worked the streets of the South Bronx which are pretty tough. But what I confronted back then were zip guns and Saturday Night Specials that were held together with masking tape and electrician's tape. And then over the last five or 10 years, it's the assault weapons. And my sense is, if we don't get a hold of this, what are you going to look like 10 years from now? It's literally going to be Rambo becomes reality, a decade from now. This is what police officers around the streets of America are going to be facing, as the average citizen.

TOTENBERG: That prospect, and a totally different reading of history and Supreme Court precedent, is what inspired today's dissenting opinions. In my view, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas. Justice John Paul Stevens added, I fear that the gun ban struck down today may well be the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.