Supreme Court Extends Gun Rights Nationwide

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the right to bear arms applies to cities and states. The ruling casts doubt on Chicago's 30-year hand gun ban and is a victory for guns rights advocates.

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Gun rights activists have won a long-sought victory at the Supreme Court. The justices ruled yesterday that all Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. On the final day of its term, the Supreme Court for all practical purposes invalidated a Chicago ban on handguns. The vote was 5-4.

We'll have reaction from Chicago in a moment. But first we hear from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Nearly two years ago to the day, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the right to bear arms is an individual right, not, as the court had long implied, a collective right associated with military service. But that 2008 ruling invalidated a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. And because the capital is a federal enclave, it was unclear whether the ruling applied also to state and local gun laws.

Yesterday the court resolved any ambiguity. It ruled that the Second Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms for their own self defense in every city, county and state.

Writing for the five member court majority, Justice Samuel Alito reiterated the caveats the court established two years ago, that reasonable regulation of guns is permissible. We have made clear, he noted, that felons and the mentally ill may be barred from buying guns, that carrying guns near schools or in public buildings may be banned, and that governments at all levels may impose conditions on the commercial sale of guns.

But, he added, the Second Amendment's guarantee of gun ownership rights is no different than other rights guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to free speech or freedom from unreasonable searches. And just because these rights may make life more for difficult for law enforcement does not mean we eliminate the principles enunciated in the Constitution.

Gun rights enthusiasts were jubilant over a decision that they hope will eliminate many of the restrictions they have chafed against for decades. At the same time, gun control advocates braced for years of litigation at a time when there seems little political will to enforce stiff gun restrictions.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Center to control gun violence.

Mr. PAUL HELMKE (President, Brady Center): The main thing that's going to happen from this decision is there's going to be tons of litigation. Yes, there's going to be challenges, and yes, there's going to be a lot of court fights, and yes, some judges may rule the other way. But I think ultimately the court has made the Second Amendment very narrow and by repeating the Scalia reasonable restrictions language I think theyve reinforced the fact that they dont want this to go too far.

TOTENBERG: Paul Clement, who represented the National Rifle Association in the Supreme Court, says there may also be a legislative push to roll back existing gun restrictions at the state and local level.

Mr. PAUL CLEMENT (Attorney): Some of the action here is not just going to be in the courts but is also going to be in the legislatures and in city council meetings, where people are going to have to take this decision into account.

TOTENBERG: Prince George's County, Maryland States Attorney Glenn Ivey, chairman of the board of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, says yesterday's ruling makes clear that flat-out handgun bans won't wash anymore.

Mr. GLENN IVEY (Association of Prosecuting Attorneys): Will that apply to cars? Will that apply to yards? Will people be allowed to carry them on their person under this interpretation of the Second Amendment? How far will this go before it runs into the point where reasonable regulation is going to be permitted?

TOTENBERG: Among the other questions that will face the courts are whether assault weapons can be banned or machine guns or so-called cop killer bullets that pierce armor. What about restrictions on the number of guns that can be sold to one person, or the age of the gun owner?

Herb Titus, counsel for the Gun Owners of America says he expects challenges as well to registration and licensing requirements.

Mr. HERB TITUS (Gun Owners of America): You can't license book sellers. You can't single them out. You can't single out magazine publishers. Why should you be able to single out firearms dealers?

TOTENBERG: New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly worries about the arms race between cops and criminals and the influx of weapons from states that have few if any restrictions on gun sales.

Mr. RAY KELLY (Commissioner, NYPD): There's no question about it, we have a gun problem in this country. We certainly have it in major cities. We are very much concerned about it. But quite frankly, most of the guns that we encounter come from out of state. Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of the guns that we confiscate are purchased out of state and brought into New York City.

TOTENBERG: Scott Knight, a Minnesota police chief who is chairman of the Firearms Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says another police worry is allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

Mr. SCOTT KNIGHT (International Association of Chiefs of Police): That's concerning to my peers because of the obvious danger that that presents to our officers who are interacting with people daily over quite benign things and then trying to figure out whether or not that person is armed while they're doing these kinds of things can be quite worrisome.

TOTENBERG: Herb Titus of the Gun Owners of America sees things differently. The first priority of his group right now, he says, is to invalidate a federal law that bans the sale of guns to anyone convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.

Mr. TITUS: I believe that the prohibition against people who've been convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence will probably be the area of litigation down the road.

TOTENBERG: The drama of yesterday's gun decision was heightened by a passionate and rare spoken dissent from the bench delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer. He charged that the court had substituted federal regulation by the courts for the traditional legislative state and local regulation of guns that has existed since the founding of the republic.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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