March 18, 2008 / 7:03 PM / 9 years ago

US conservative justices question city handgun ban

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By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, March 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. capital's strict gun control law faced a barrage of skeptical questions on Tuesday from the U.S. Supreme Court's conservatives.

A majority of the nine-member high court seemed to support the view that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protected an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a right tied to service in a state militia.

The individual right position was advocated by opponents of the Washington, D.C., law, one of the strictest in the nation. The arguments marked the first time the Supreme Court has taken up the Second Amendment's meaning in nearly 70 years.

The court's ruling, expected by the end of June, could have a far-reaching impact on gun control laws in the United States, which is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate, and could become an issue in the November presidential election.

The case is widely viewed as one of the most important of the Supreme Court's current term, along with cases on the rights of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the U.S. lethal injection method of execution.

"What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked Washington, D.C.,'s lawyer, Walter Dellinger, referring to a provision barring private possession of handguns.

Dellinger said the ban was only on the weapons that have been considered especially dangerous.

Justice Samuel Alito, who like Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush, cited another provision requiring rifles or shotguns be kept unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock, and said it did not seem as if they could be used as such for the self-defense of one's home.

HIGH CRIME RATE

The court's four liberals seemed most sympathetic to the law. "Is it unreasonable for a city with that high crime rate to say no handguns here?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked.

Breyer cited statistics that between 80,000 and 100,000 people in the United States every year are killed or wounded in gun-related homicides or crimes, accidents or suicides.

In Washington, D.C., the number totals around 200 to 300 dead and between 1,500 to 2,000 people wounded, he said. "In light of that, why isn't a ban on handguns ... a reasonable or proportionate response on behalf of the District of Columbia?"

Lawyer Alan Gura, who is challenging the law, opposed the handgun ban, but acknowledged under questioning that the government does have the power to ban arms that are inappropriate for civilian use, like machine guns.

Gura represents Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard who lives in a high-crime neighborhood and wants to keep a handgun in his home for self-defense.

Justice John Paul Stevens asked Gura whether a state university could prohibit students from having guns on campus.

Gura never directly answered, but said that would be different from the case before the justices. "We have here a ban on all guns for all people in all homes at all times in the nation's capital."

The arguments follow a series of mass shootings in the past year -- multiple killings on at least three college campuses, two shopping centers and one Missouri town meeting.

Solicitor General Paul Clement, the administration's chief advocate before the Supreme Court, argued that individuals have a right to own a gun, but it is subject to reasonable government regulation.

He sought to preserve all of the current federal restrictions, including a ban on new machine gun sales, a ban on felons owning guns and required background checks for new buyers of handguns.

"We certainly take the position as we have consistently since 2001 that the federal firearms statues can be defended as constitutional," Clement said. (Editing by Vicki Allen)




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