Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court rules against DC handgun law, 5-4; 2nd Amendment confers an individual right!


The Supreme Court has, on Thursday June 26, ruled that the District of Columbia’s law, passed in 1976, essentially banning handgun ownership at home by residents, is unconstitutional. The vote was 5-4. The case is called District of Columbia v. Heller.

The Court has ruled that the right to bear arms is indeed an individual right, for self-defense and hunting. The Court ruled that the right does not depend upon membership in a state militia.

Various novel arguments have been made before, including the fact that every adult male (sometimes every adult) in a certain age range is technically a militia member anyway by an arcane 18th century law.

Proponents of 2nd Amendment rights (including the libertarian party) believe that self-defense is a good practical deterrent to crime, because the police cannot be everywhere. Some see it as a “duty.” Others question whether personal home (or office or campus) gun ownership and use would prevent a determined criminal (as in the Virginia Tech incident). Some believe that a determined "commons" effort to control weapons overrides individual property interests and could be implemented successfully. The Supreme Court, however, says that the proper reading of the 2nd Amendment prevents certain collective policy choices in the public safety area.

Recently 2nd Amendment proponents held a demonstration in Richmond, carrying weapons in open and visibly, which is often legal.

States often have laws preventing weapons possession in specific places, such as where alcohol as served (as in Texas).

Washington DC does allow the possession of rifles and shotguns at home, but they must be disassembled and locked up.

The CNN story (“High court strikes down gun ban”) is here. CNN's Breaking News story did not appear until 10:14 AM because it was busy reporting a simultaneous breaking story about North Korea's "giving in" on its nuclear program.

Mark Sherman has a detailed story at the Associated Press, here.

The decision is said to be the first major ruling on the scope of the 2nd Amendment in US History. Later details say that that (according to the Opinion) government still may impose reasonable limitations on personal use of weapons for public safety (in certain places or by unfit persons), but it may not ban entire classes of weapons or "disable" their use. The District is moving to revise its laws and regulations quickly.

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Scalia. Justice Stevens dissented, refusing to find this form of self-defense as a fundamental right.

The ruling goes into effect in about 21 days. Mayor Adrian Fenty is directing the DC Metropolitan Police Department to develop an ("amnesty") procedure for registering handguns (that would have been illegal under the DC law) in accordance with the Supreme Court Ruling. The Mayor held a press conference at noon today.

It is not completely clear yet if the "incorporation doctrine" from the 14th Amendment will cause this ruling to apply to state laws, which will be challenged. The Court may have to decide that later, and there are tricky historical arguments to navigate regarding state militia.

The link for slip opinions is here. I expect the PDF document for the opinion to appear today (keep checking).

Update: (11 AM). The link for the Heller opinion is present now. It is as follows.

Update: July 7

Page 2 of the Monday 7/7/2008 Washington Post has a "Department of Human Behavior" column by Shankar Vedantam (link here , with an associated gray sidebar link at the bottom of the column (right side of the page in the printed newspaper) that makes a critical point: 2nd Amendment framers did not anticipate that owners of weapons could use them against themselves or for other illegal domestic purposes at home, and that this incidence (in the District of Columbia, at least) went down when the 1976 law went into effect. This is something to think about.

Picture (above): "I am the reporter" at the Newseum (earlier this year).

Picture (below): National Rifle Museum (NRA) placard on the Second Amendment, Fairfax VA

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