Gun-rights ruling could ricochet across nation
Chicago has stake in high court case
By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau
3:41 PM CDT, March 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — It's a shooting war, for certain.
Democrats versus Republicans, cities versus states, cops versus cops, scholars versus scholars, and most bizarrely, the Bush administration against itself.
The root of the conflict lies in a case that will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, one as dramatic as any in recent memory.
For the first time in almost 70 years, the court will consider whether the 2nd Amendment grants an individual the right to own a gun. It's a day long awaited by gun-rights activists, and long feared by those who favor gun control.
At issue is Washington, D.C.'s near-total ban on gun ownership, a ban declared unconstitutional last year by a federal appeals court. But the impact of the court's decision could have much greater scope, with Chicago having perhaps more at stake than any other city.
The city's gun ban is similar to Washington's, and opponents of that ban have pledged that Chicago will be their next target if they succeed at the high court.
Whether they will is anyone's guess. The Supreme Court hasn't examined the nature of the 2nd Amendment since 1939. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that the amendment applies only to the arming of state militias, since it 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."
But that began to change as gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, pushed for a more sweeping interpretation of the provision as a near-absolute ban on regulating guns. They cast the 2nd Amendment in terms of an individual right, something akin to freedom of speech or religion.
"Guns are like books or churches," said Dave Kopel of the libertarian Independence Institute, citing the fundamental right of self-defense. "Survival is a constitutional value that should be taken into account."
Balanced against that are the efforts by cities such as Washington and Chicago to get a handle on gun violence and homicides. Both cities have banned ownership of handguns for decades. Chicago's ban was enacted in 1982, while Washington forbids ownership of handguns and requires that rifles and shotguns in the home must be disassembled or trigger-locked.
Benna Ruth Solomon, Chicago's deputy corporation counsel, said it's a matter of communities being given the authority to decide how best to ensure public safety. "Our City Council and mayor can be responsive to local residents," Solomon said. "And anyone who disagrees with the ban can find some other place to live."
The city, along with the Chicago Board of Education, filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that even if the court were to strike down the Washington ban, the Chicago ban should be left alone because the 2nd Amendment applies only to the federal government, not the states. (The District of Columbia is a federal entity.)
Solomon also contended that even if the court finds that gun ownership is an individual right, that right can be reasonably regulated by local governments. Not surprisingly, gun-ban opponents hold different views.
The city also points to the gun violence that plagues its streets and schools. In the brief, Chicago says that from 2004 to November 2007 it experienced 43,685 firearms-related crimes. And last year, 29 Chicago Public School students were killed in firearm-related incidents.
Some state governments have sided with Chicago, including New York and Massachusetts. But 31 states, including Texas, Florida and Ohio, have filed briefs supporting an expansive view of the 2nd Amendment. "The overarching issue is whether it's going to be treated as a real right, as a right with any meaning for individuals," said R. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general.
Briefs supporting each side have been piling up at the Supreme Court's door. The International Association of Chiefs of Police supports the ban, while the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, opposes it. Legal scholars have split into two camps as well, with some liberal and libertarian professors joining conservatives in espousing 2nd Amendment rights.
Cheney opposes ban
The case also has laid bare a split within the Bush administration. The Justice Department stunned—and disappointed—many gun-rights activists by advocating a narrower reading of the 2nd Amendment in an attempt to preserve many federal gun regulations. But Vice President Dick Cheney signed onto a brief filed by members of Congress that calls for the Washington ban to be overturned.
Sen. John McCain, the prospective Republican presidential nominee, also signed that brief. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have not. Both Clinton and Obama have spoken favorably of gun rights, but they also have said those rights can be regulated for public safety.
With the conservative-leaning court, it appears possible, perhaps even likely, that a majority of justices will find some sort of individual right to own handguns, which would mark a major victory for the gun-rights movement. But that still will leave the even thornier question of how that right may be abridged.
As Chicago's Solomon put it, "Most rights aren't absolute."