High Court Rules in Favor of Gun Rights
By NATHAN KOPPEL
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court ruled for the first time that gun possession is fundamental to American freedom, giving federal judges power to strike down state and local weapons laws for infringing on Second Amendment rights.
The ruling was 5-4 along the court's usual conservative-liberal split. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion.
The court in 2008 voided a District of Columbia handgun ban, and Monday's ruling extended that to the rest of the country. Because Washington is federal territory and not part of a state, the legal basis for imposing federal constitutional limits on gun laws adopted by states had been unclear.
The legal question before the court had much to do with questions of constitutional history. Before the Civil War, courts held that the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government. After the Union victory, the Reconstruction amendments were adopted to elevate individual rights over state powers and cement the federal role in enforcing them.
The Supreme Court has subsequently held that many constitutional rights considered fundamental to American principles of liberty override state laws. However, more technical provisions—such as the Fifth Amendment requirement that grand juries approve criminal indictments—apply only to the federal government and don't necessarily bind states.
Monday's ruling elevates the Second Amendment right to bear arms to the status of a fundamental right that states can't abridge.
"It is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty," wrote Justice Alito in his majority opinion.
Two years ago, after the court voted 5-4 along its conservative-liberal split to strike down the Washington ordinance, gun-rights forces filed suit against weapons laws around the country. The case decided Monday involved a challenge to handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill.
At arguments in March, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the dissenters Monday, said gun possession was different in nature from the other rights described in the Constitution.
When state or local lawmakers enact gun regulations, they do so aiming to protect public safety, he said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested during the March arguments that Chicago's fears of unleashing an arsenal on city streets were overblown, observing that even when the court has recognized a right, "the states have substantial latitude...to impose reasonable regulations."
Write to Nathan Koppel at email@example.com