September 6, 2007 / 2:06 PM / in 10 years

Handgun ban could lead to key ruling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A case challenging the ban on private handgun ownership in the U.S. capital could lead to the first ruling by the Supreme Court since 1939 on the rights of Americans to bear arms.

Officials from the District of Columbia government this week asked the high court to agree the city’s 31-year-old law banning private possession of handguns is constitutional.

Supporters and opponents of the law said the case could have far-reaching legal and political importance in affecting the nation’s gun laws.

D.C. officials said a U.S. appeals court was wrong in its precedent-setting ruling in March that broadly interpreted an individual’s constitutional right under the Second Amendment to bear arms, and that concluded the law violated those rights.

The Second Amendment says, “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.”

City lawyers have argued the amendment guarantees the right to bear arms only for members of a militia, like today’s National Guard, and not for individuals.

But the appeals court adopted the position that the Bush administration has advocated previously -- that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.

“This has the potential to be the most significant ruling ever on the Second Amendment,” said Paul Helmke, president of Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He said the case also could be significant in the political debate leading up to next year’s elections.

The Supreme Court has not ruled on the scope of the Second Amendment since a decision 68 years ago when it upheld a federal gun control law but did not definitively resolve the constitutional issue.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, District of Columbia Attorney General Linda Singer said the March ruling marked the first time a federal appeals court has invoked the Second Amendment to strike down a gun-control law.


“A law that bans handguns but permits private ownership of rifles and shotguns does not deprive anyone of the right to keep and bear arms, however that right is construed,” she said.

Singer said the nation’s three largest cities -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- have laws banning handguns or tightly regulating their possession and use, that states have adopted various measures and a number of nations have banned handguns or grant permits in only exceptional cases.

“Whatever right the Second Amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die,” she said.

Six residents brought the challenge to the city’s law, one of the strictest in the nation. One of their lawyers, Robert Levy of the Cato Institute, said they also would urge the Supreme Court to review the case.

He said those challenging the law seek a broader ruling from the Supreme Court, one that could apply nationwide and not just in Washington.

If the justices agree to decide the case, arguments most likely would be scheduled for next year, with a ruling expected by the end of June.

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