Gun Control Laws in the Cross Hairs

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Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

Guns seized by Washington, D.C., police over the years are stored in the firearms examination section at police headquarters on March 18, 2008.

For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has stood apart from the debate raging over gun control. It hasn't ruled on the Second Amendment since May 1939 — almost four months before the Nazis rolled into Poland. But on Tuesday the Court injected itself into the center of a fiery dispute, hearing arguments in a gun control case that marks the amendment's greatest test since it was ratified in 1791. During the argument, a majority of justices appeared to signal that the right to bear arms extends to ordinary Americans, a belief that could redraw the lines of this contentious cultural battle.

At issue in the case, D.C. v. Heller, is the city's ban prohibiting possession of handguns that were not registered as of 1976. Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard, sued the district after it denied him permission to register, and thus possess, a handgun that he wanted to keep in his home for protection. A federal appeals court in D.C. sided with Heller, finding that the city's gun ban — considered the nation's strictest — violated Heller's Second Amendment right to bear arms. The text of the amendment, arguably one of the more convoluted in the Constitution, reads, "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."

The appeals court ruling, however, doesn't necessarily square with legal precedent. In the 1939 case, U.S. v. Miller, the Supreme Court ruled, "We cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear" arms. So while many Americans have long argued the Second Amendment extends to them, that belief has never been unequivocally grounded in the law.

Outside the court Tuesday, advocates for both sides hoisted signs inscribed with political slogans. Some camped out overnight in hopes of becoming among the few admitted to witness the Court in action at a landmark moment. Anticipation in the legal community was no less fevered, with dozens of parties filing briefs on both sides. Inside, the argument before the Court hinged on the justices' interpretation of the 27-word sentence that has been scrutinized all the way down to its puzzling syntax. The critical question for the justices was whether the language confers an individual right to own a gun in addition to providing for "a well regulated Militia."

The members of the Court's conservative wing seemed to think so. They favored a broader interpretation that included individual rights. "The two clauses go together beautifully: Since we need a militia, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," said Justice Antonin Scalia. In a spirited back-and-forth with the district's lawyer, former solicitor general Walter Dellinger, Chief Justice John Roberts scoffed at the D.C. ban's sweeping restrictions. "What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?" he asked. Justice Samuel Alito joined his colleagues, pointing out that the ban's provision — that legal rifles or shotguns be kept unloaded, with the trigger locked — neutralized its self-defense purposes. If an intruder materialized, he asked, could the weapon be readied in time? Both he and Justice Clarence Thomas appear certain to embrace the individual rights argument.

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