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Supreme Court To Weigh Chicago Guns Case

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Supreme Court To Weigh Chicago Guns Case


Supreme Court To Weigh Chicago Guns Case

Supreme Court To Weigh Chicago Guns Case

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The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case testing whether the Second Amendment right to bear arms restricts the ability of state and local governments to limit citizen access to guns. At issue is a ban on handguns in Chicago.


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.

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Supreme Court To Debate Local, State Handgun Laws

The Supreme Court's newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has supported states' rights to regulate guns. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Supreme Court's newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has supported states' rights to regulate guns.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to decide whether strict local and state gun control laws violate the Second Amendment, ensuring another high-profile battle over the rights of gun owners.

In the wake of a 2008 court decision declaring a gun ban in the District of Columbia to be unconstitutional, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights supporters challenged a similar ban in Chicago. They argued that like most other constitutional amendments, the Second Amendment, which guarantees a right to bear arms, should apply not just to federal laws but to state and local laws.

But a federal appeals court upheld the Chicago law, noting that at least thus far, the Supreme Court has explicitly left intact 19th century decisions that allow the states to regulate guns as they wish.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

Justice Sonia Sotomayor took a similar position when she was serving on the federal appeals court in New York. Now she will be one of the justices to re-examine the question.

In the appeals court ruling in the Chicago case, Judge Frank Easterbrook, an appointee of President Reagan, said that "the Constitution establishes a federal republic where local differences are to be cherished as elements of liberty rather than extirpated in order to produce a single, nationally applicable rule."

Evaluating arguments over the extension of the Second Amendment is a job "for the justices rather than a court of appeals," he said.

The New York ruling also has been challenged, but the Supreme Court did not act on it Wednesday. Sotomayor would have to sit out any case involving decisions she was part of on the appeals court. Although the issue is the same in the Chicago case, there is no ethical bar to her participation in its consideration by the Supreme Court.

Several Republican senators cited the Sotomayor gun ruling, as well as her reticence on the topic at her confirmation hearing, in explaining their decision to oppose her confirmation to the high court.

The case is McDonald v. Chicago.

From NPR and wire service reports.