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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Gun Control Case

November 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for a major ruling on the Second Amendment Tuesday when it agreed to take a case weighing the constitutionality of a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal details the significance of the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s announcement that the justices will examine the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s handgun ban sets up the first showdown over gun rights at the Supreme Court in decades.

For a look at what’s at stake, we turn to NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

And, Marcia, what’s the case? And who’s asking the Supreme Court for review?

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: OK, here’s what happened, Ray. Dick Heller is a resident of the District of Columbia, and he wanted to have a handgun in his possession at home for personal safety reasons.

He went to register that handgun and came up against the District of Columbia’s law that forbids the registration of handguns. In effect, it forbids the possession of handguns. The law also has other provisions that say, other than handguns, if you have a firearm in the home, it must be unloaded, disassembled, or under a secure lock.

He challenged this law, along with some others, claiming that the law violated his rights under the Second Amendment to bear arms. Eventually, it got to the top federal court for the District of Columbia, and that court ruled 2-1 that the district’s law did, indeed, violate an individual’s right to bear arms, to have firearms under the Second Amendment.

Mr. Heller filed — I’m sorry, the District of Columbia then filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, and today we heard that the court will hear that case.

Second Amendment under scrutiny

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Heller, in his original case, and the District of Columbia, in its defense, made a lot of points at the various appellate levels. Does the U.S. Supreme Court get to pick, in effect, which part of the case it's going to rule on?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, it does. In this case, the district did try to narrow the issue somewhat to focus only on the ban on handguns, but the court rewrote the question that the district presented to it, and really is going to the heart of the issue that we've heard debated for years. It asks whether an individual has a right, under the Second Amendment, to have firearms in his personal possession.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, let's remind people what the exact wording of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is. It says, "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." When was the last time the court was asked to rule on whether people can own guns?

MARCIA COYLE: It's hard to believe, but it was in 1939, and the case involved two bootleggers who wanted to transport a sawed-off shotgun across state lines. They were charged with violating a federal gun registration law.

The court there unanimously said that the Second Amendment was not meant to protect those two bootleggers, but the court didn't say much more, or didn't say much with clarity about what the Second Amendment really does mean.

And so we've had this intense debate ever since as to whether it protects the individual right or whether it only protects individuals who are part of a militia or perhaps, as we would call it today, a National Guard.

Potential national impact

RAY SUAREZ: So this has the potential, if I understand the way you've mentioned the court rewrote the question, to make law nationwide with wide applicability for states that have gun laws on their books?

MARCIA COYLE: This is potentially a landmark case; there's no question about that. But this case also has an important wrinkle in it.

The Supreme Court has never expressly said that the Second Amendment applies to the states. There are some rights in the Bill of Rights that the court has not, as they said, incorporated to apply to the states. They protect only against federal interference.

The lower court applied the Second Amendment to the District of Columbia because it sees the district as a federal enclave. Now, a Supreme Court decision may not have a direct impact on the states, but the states are watching it very closely because whatever the court decides will be extremely influential in how state courts view provisions in their constitutions or local gun laws and how they interpret those, in terms of whether it protects an individual right.

RAY SUAREZ: Because there are places elsewhere in the country where the right to own a handgun and have it in your home is not absolutely untrammeled. It's confined; it's regulated. There's registration requirements, stuff like that?

MARCIA COYLE: That's true. In fact, I was surprised that I think it's 43 of 50 states have state constitutional provisions that protect the individual right to possess firearms. The Supreme Court can rule somewhat narrowly, if it chooses. It could say there is an individual right, but perhaps it may also say that right can be reasonably regulated. None of our rights are absolute.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk about timeline. When the Supreme Court grants a petition in the fall, right after a new term begins, what are we looking at plausibly as when this case might be argued and ruled on?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, based on the number of cases they've already decided to hear oral arguments in, it looks like this case will be argued some time in March. And given how controversial and possibly complicated it is, we probably won't see a decision until late June.

It's also possible that the Supreme Court will ask the Bush administration, the solicitor general of the United States, to weigh in with its views on the issue. When the Justice Department was under John Ashcroft, the Bush administration did take a position in a federal court case that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, aside from a militia right.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.