In late July 2008, the Illinois village of Morton Grove repealed its 27-year-old handgun ban, one of the oldest handgun bans in the nation.
The ban was repealed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling of District of Columbia v. Heller, which declared that local laws prohibiting the possession of handguns are a violation of the Second Amendment. Reluctant to defend the ban in court and possibly costing the Morton Grove government millions in legal fees, the village’s board of directors voted 5 to 1 to repeal the ban.
Morton Grove is not the only local government to repeal handgun bans since the Supreme Court made its ruling in June, 2008. Many towns and cities across the country that enacted handgun bans in the past are repealing them. Other cities, like Chicago and San Francisco, are challenging the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying that the local restrictions are vital in reducing crime.
Gun rights advocates have hailed the Supreme Court’s decision and are actively supporting the repeal of local handgun bans. Additionally, groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), the largest gun rights advocacy organization in the country, are suing cities that continue their handgun bans in spite of the Supreme Court ruling, arguing that the restrictions are infringing on their Second Amendment rights.
As the fallout from District of Columbia v. Heller moves from the national stage to local courthouses, the question of whether handgun bans are necessary or constitutional remains.
The Second Amendment at a Glance
At the heart of the long debate concerning gun laws is the 27-word-long Second Amendment which states:
“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.”
Nowhere is the right to bear arms explained further, and throughout the history of the country, the right of the individual to have guns has been only implied, allowing for state and local governments to adopt gun restrictions.
Since it was written in 1787, two views of the amendment have emerged. The narrow interpretation suggests that the amendment protects only the rights of militias - groups of private individuals unaffiliated with the government. With this view, the right of individual citizens to bear arms is implied, not explicit, because militias are formed by individual citizens. This interpretation allows for governments to pass gun restrictions, such as the banning of certain types of assault weapons, as long as the general populace has access to other types of guns.
A broader interpretation of the amendment suggests that it applies explicitly to the individual, meaning that every individual, whether or not they are part of a militia, has the unequivocal right to bear arms. This view would declare most gun restrictions imposed by the governments as unconstitutional.
The difference in the two views is subtle but important. Yet the debate has only produced three previous Supreme Court cases where the Second Amendment was forced to be defined. In those three cases – United States v, Cruikshank, Presser v. Illinois, and United States v. Miller - the issue hinged more on the definition and function of a militia instead of the right of the individual’s right to bear arms.
District of Columbia v. Heller
District of Columbia v. Heller raised the question of whether or not individuals have the clear right to own guns, and if they do, whether local gun control laws infringe on those rights. At the heart of the issue is a 31-year-old local restriction on one’s ability to carry handguns, the District of Columbia Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, and whether or not the ban, and regulations like it, violate the Second Amendment.
The ban, which prohibited individuals from carrying a handgun without a license and required rifles and shotguns to be equipped with trigger locks, was enacted in a time when the city was experiencing a dramatic increase in violent crime. The city government reasoned that it was necessary to ban most handguns in order to protect its citizens. Since the passage of the ban in the nation’s capitol, other cities have passed similar legislation aimed at curbing gun related violence.
Flash forward to 2006: when several D.C. residents joined together to challenge the ban, citing that they have a constitutional right to carry handguns and that the law violated their protected rights. The challengers of the law sued the city Washington, D.C. in federal court, and after several trials, the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
The court, in a 5 to 4 decision, ruled in favor of security guard Dick Heller, who sued for his right to own a handgun in the District of Columbia. The court said that banning the possession of handguns is an infringement of the Second Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion, “We hold that the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.”
Justice Scalia addressed the issue of gun restrictions as a matter of public safety by arguing that possessing a handgun is a method of self-protection. He stated in the opinion that the Second Amendment “surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
Justice Stephen Breyer expressed concern over the fact that because of the ruling, many gun laws may be threatened. He stated in the dissenting opinion that the ruling “threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States.”
The decision goes local
Soon after the Supreme Court made its decision, citizens and gun rights advocates across the country began targeting other cities with handgun restrictions. Having to defend their restrictions in court, these governments are having to make the decision: keep the bans and face a possible lawsuit and legal expenses, or repeal the ban.
Towns like Morton Grove and Wilmette, both in Illinois, chose to repeal the ban after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Wilmette Village President Chris Canning said in an Associated Press interview “In my mind we had to repeal. I knew that our ordinance would not survive constitutional scrutiny."
Chicago, on the other hand, is choosing to defend its handgun ban, arguing that it is a necessary measure to reduce crime and protect its citizenry. "We have no plans to amend our ordinance at this time," said Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for Chicago's law department in an Associated Press interview, noting that the ordinance has survived three previous court challenges. "We're prepared to take this fight to the Supreme Court if necessary."
What do you think?
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s decision? What kind of gun restrictions, if any, do you think are constitutional? Is there a middle ground between bans and unchecked gun ownership? Do you think local governments should keep restrictions on the books if they have them? Do you think gun rights advocates should take legal action against governments that continue to enforce bans? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!