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Supreme Court Considers Whether Gun Right Extends to States

Updated 4:15 p.m. ET | The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in McDonald v. City of Chicago, a gun rights case that could redefine the constitutionality of firearms regulation across the country.

In the McDonald case, 76-year-old Chicago resident Otis McDonald, as well as three other residents and two gun rights groups, are appealing the Supreme Court to allow him to own a handgun in his city and strike down Chicago’s blanket ban.

NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal will join Jim Lehrer on Tuesday’s broadcast to recap the arguments in the McDonald case. Coyle told the Rundown that the Chicago case “is really the sequel to [the Heller] decision because the sole question before the justices is whether the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments. That question was not answered in the 2008 decision by the Supreme Court because the District of Columbia is a federal enclave, so the ruling applied only to the federal government.” Scroll down for more of her analysis and observations from Tuesday’s arguments.

Chicago public radio station WBEZ recaps the history of the handgun ban:

> The City Council approved the ordinance by a vote of 30 to 11. And what’s been the result? NRA lawyer Stephen Halbrook says it hasn’t had any effect on crime.

HALBROOK: I think it’s made it impossible for law-abiding citizens to have handguns to protect their families in their own homes.

City of Chicago lawyer Benna Solomon disagrees. She says the law is an important tool for police to make arrests.

SOLOMON: Because we have a handgun ordinance, when a police officer is on surveillance or on patrol and sees a suspicious bulge in someone’s waistband, that alone provides probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. So it allows the police officer to intervene, right then and there.

Last year, the Chicago police seized more than 8,000 guns. Homicides decreased 10 percent in 2009, but the death toll was still staggering: 458 murders. Out of that total, 352 people were killed with handguns.

The significance of the McDonald case is tied to 2008’s landmark Heller decision, in which a divided court ruled that the Second amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected an individual right to own a firearm.

Marcia Coyle answered a few questions about the McDonald case for The Rundown Tuesday following the day’s arguments.

Why is there a difference between the federal and local rules?

MARCIA COYLE: The Second Amendment is in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was originally designed to protect us from actions from the federal government. That was the thinking until the adoption of the 14th Amendment, which explicitly bars states from enacting laws that 1) abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens, and 2) deprive the people of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

After the 14th Amendment was adopted, the Supreme Court began a process known as selective incorporation in which it applied the Constitution’s amendments — or parts of the amendments — to the states. It has not applied all of the Bill of Rights to the states. Besides the Second Amendment, it hasn’t applied the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in non-criminal cases, or the Fifth Amendment’s grand jury requirement.

Are there any clues about which way the justices might be leaning in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: The case, like the 2008 case, has drawn numerous supporting briefs, with those supporting applying the Second Amendment to the states outnumbering their opponents 2-to-1. It’s likely that whatever decision the court makes will divide the justices just as the Heller decision in 2008 did, and I don’t think we can expect to see a decision until the very end of the term.

During arguments today, it appeared the justices are likely to make the Second Amendment applicable to the states. Their questions focused mainly on how to do it, and how much of the Amendment should apply. A number of them indicated they also believed the right involved here can be regulated if applied to the states.

What happens next?

If the court does apply the Second Amendment to the states, there will be much, much litigation over what states and local governments actually do to regulate guns. That’s going to be the next big round of lawsuits is whether those regulations are reasonable and can withstand constitutional scrutiny. So it’s not over by a long shot.

The Heller decision struck down the handgun restrictions for Washington, D.C., which has a special federal status. The McDonald case, however, concerns whether that individual right should be applied to state and local governments.

On SCOTUSblog, reporter Lyle Denniston predicts that the court will likely apply that right more broadly, based on the outcome in Heller.

“Starting with the fact that the Heller majority found a personal right to have a gun to be a right that existed even before the Constitution was written, it is difficult to imagine that a majority will do anything other than require state and local governments, too, to respect that right,” Denniston wrote.

NPR’s Nina Totenberg also detailed the history and signficance of the case on Tuesday’s Morning Edition:

The odds are that gun advocates will win this case. The Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 2008 decision was by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives in the majority. But now the question is whether a right declared fundamental by the court can be isolated as a federal right only — a proposition that liberals generally have not favored.

Read more about the parties involved in the case at OnTheDocket.org.

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