Supreme Court To Weigh Chicago Guns Case
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The Supreme Court has stepped back into the issue of gun rights. The justices have agreed to hear a case testing whether the right to bear arms puts constitutional limits on state laws as well as federal laws.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Last year, the court by a five-to-four vote ruled that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an individual right to bear arms. The decision rejected a modern understanding that the right to bear arms was for military purposes. But the court opinion came in a case that tested a ban on guns in the District of Columbia, and since the nation's capital is a federal enclave, the ruling only applied to federal laws.
The case the court will now hear centers on a total ban on handguns in Chicago and some of its suburbs. If Chicago were a federal city, the ban would certainly be constitutionally invalid. But it's not, of course, so the question is whether the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling, which applied to federal laws, must now be applied to the states.
Only in the last century has the court applied individual provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. And it's done so on a one-on-one and selective basis, and not uniformly. Thus, for example, the right to a jury trial has been applied to the states, but not the requirement of unanimous jury verdicts, nor has the right to a civil jury trial been applied to the states.
In the Chicago gun case, Judge Frank Easterbrook, a respected and conservative appeals court judge, wrote the opinion upholding the Chicago law. He said that if the courts are to apply the Second Amendment to the states, it's the Supreme Court that must make that decision first, not the lower courts. Sonia Sotomayor made a similar judgment when she served on the court of appeals in New York. Now, she'll be part of the court that will re-examine the issue.
Experts on both sides seem to agree that by and large, the court's decision will have little impact on most state and local laws. Although there've been 170 challenges to both state and federal gun restrictions since the Supreme Court's decision last year, almost all have failed; in large part because Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the court legitimized most commonsense gun restrictions.
Paul Helmke is the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Mr. PAUL HELMKE (President, Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence): Justice Scalia went out of his way to say you can't have anyone having any gun anywhere anytime. And that restrictions on who gets guns, where they take the guns, how the guns are sold, how the guns are stored, how the guns are carried, and even what types of guns there are were all, quote, "presumptively lawful."
TOTENBERG: Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School makes a similar point, noting that at least 40 states have state constitutions that guarantee the right to bear arms. And that hasn't prevented state courts from upholding their own state gun restrictions.
Professor EUGENE VOLOKH (Professor, UCLA School of Law): So a lot of state and local laws have already been challenged on the right to bear arms, guns, though at the state level. And most of them have been upheld. So it is pretty clear that the Second Amendment, even if incorporated against the states, would leave intact most gun control.
TOTENBERG: Even if Chicago loses in the Supreme Court, experts agree the impact is likely to be pretty minimal. The only laws likely in jeopardy are the outliers: laws in a few cities that ban all handguns even for self-defense at home, or laws in a few places that ban guns for people 18 to 20 years old.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.