The right to bear arms and a city’s ability to regulate guns are being debated in the chambers of the nation’s highest court.
In March 2008, both parties in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller presented their initial arguments before the Supreme Court. The case, which explores the issue of whether local gun restrictions violate the Second Amendment to the Constitution, has generated great interest all over the country, as cities like New York and Philadelphia, as well as entire states, have previously drafted laws that limit gun ownership in the hopes of reducing crime rates.
The ruling forces the question: do local and state governments have the authority to adopt their own gun control laws or are those restrictions infringing the Constitution? Justices are expected to make their decision by June of 2008.
What the Second Amendment says and the questions it raises
At the heart of the 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 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 Supreme Court cases where the Second Amendment was forced to be defined. In those three cases, 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 raises the question of whether or not individuals have the explicit 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 restriction on one’s ability to carry handguns, the District of Columbia Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, and whether or not this ban, and regulations like it, violates the Second Amendment.
The ban, which restricts individuals from carrying a handgun without a license and requires 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, and 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 like New York City 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 Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in March of 2008, with the Justices weighing in their opinions on the case. The crux of the debate is the issue of whether a gun restriction is a reasonable and justifiable power of local governments in order to protect the lives of citizens or if it goes too far and infringes on the individual’s right to bear arms.
Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts asked the question, “What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?”
Walter Dellinger, representing the District of Columbia answered Justice Roberts’ question by saying “What is reasonable about a total ban on possession is that it's a ban only on the possession of one kind of weapon, of handguns, that's considered especially dangerous.”
Justice Stephen Breyer asked if it is "unreasonable for a city with a very high crime rate ... to say no handguns here?"
Alan Gura, who is representing the individuals challenging the gun restrictions, argues that the ban was not passed without any review, and the ban has not produced any clear results in reducing crime. He said before the court that the ban is “unreasonable and it fails any standard of review.”
The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling by June 2008, and its decision will decide whether local gun laws are constitutional, reaffirming their authority to use gun restrictions as anti-crime measures or if they are unconstitutional, essentially nullifying gun restrictions passed by local governments around the country. In short, the case could have dramatic effects on the right to bear arms is interpreted where you live.
What do you think?
After reading the Second Amendment, do you think local and state governments have the authority to place limits on gun ownership? Does the Second Amendment protect an individual’s right to bear arms unconditionally or should safety concerns justify gun control measures? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!