WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court held Monday that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, advancing a recent trend by the John Roberts-led bench to embrace gun rights.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices cast doubt on handgun bans in the Chicago area, but signaled that some limitations on the Constitution's "right to keep and bear arms" could survive legal challenges.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, said that the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."
The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed. Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority.
Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home.
That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal city with unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.
Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill, where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.
Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.
Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws. Instead, it ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that the statutes eventually would fall.
Still, Alito noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."
Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, each wrote a dissent. Stevens, in his final day on the bench after more than 34 years, said that unlike the Washington case, Monday's decision "could prove far more destructive — quite literally — to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."
The ruling seemed unlikely to resolve questions and ongoing legal challenges about precisely what sort of gun control laws are permissible.
The response of the District to the court's ruling in 2008 is illustrative of the uncertainty.
Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C. imposed a series of regulations on handgun ownership, including requirements to register weapons and to submit to a multiple-choice test, fingerprinting and a ballistics test. Owners must also show they have gotten classroom instruction on handling a gun and have spent at least an hour on the firing range. Some 800 people have now registered handguns in the city.
Anticipating a similar result in their case, Chicago lawmakers are looking at even more stringent regulations.
But the new regulations themselves are likely to themselves be the subject of lawsuits, a fact noted by the dissenting justices Monday. Already in Washington, Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original case before the Supreme Court, has sued the city over its new laws.
Heller argues that the stringent restrictions violate the intent of the high court's decision. So far a federal judge has upheld the limitations, but the case has been appealed.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said his politically powerful group "will continue to work at every level to insure that defiant city councils and cynical politicians do not transform this constitutional victory into a practical defeat through Byzantine regulations and restrictions."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent proponent of gun control, said the ruling allows cities "to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists while at the same time respecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens."