Court Cites Constitution in Rejecting Handgun Ban

A federal appeals court rules against the District of Columbia's long-standing handgun ban. The court rejects the city's argument that the constitutional "right to bear arms" applies only to well-regulated militias.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, Cherokee's vote to expel descendents of former slaves from the Cherokee Nation. But first, from the same people who gave us that much-lauded phrase we the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union also came one of the most ambiguous and contentious sentences in American history, the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Now, for the record here it is. Quote: "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."

Twenty-seven words and three commas. A bit of ambiguous grammar that still has people arguing over the right for private citizens to bear arms and the right of the government to regulate them. Yesterday an appeals court in the District of Columbia ruled on the side of the National Rifle Association and opponents of gun control, saying that the second amendment right applies to individuals, not just militias. The court overturned a gun control law in Washington, D.C. that makes it all but impossible for residents of the city to own handguns, saying that the law goes too far. NPR's Laura Sullivan has been covering this story. Thanks for being with us Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Sure.

SIMON: And what was the case about specifically and generally?

SULLIVAN: Well, here's the situation. D.C. has some of the most restrictive handgun laws in the country. You can't own a handgun unless you registered it before 1976. And if you are one of those people, you have to keep it locked up and unloaded. So six D.C. residents said that's not fair. And now over the past 70 years or so the courts have basically said too bad, but saying the cities and states can regulate handguns. But this time this appellate court said actually they're right, it's not fair. And then they went very broad, saying that this is not a local issue. This has nothing to do with regulation on a local city level. This is about the Second Amendment. And you can't regulate handgun ownership so much that no one can own one.

SIMON: How much of a surprise was this ruling to some people?

SULLIVAN: This goes back to 1939. This has been a contentious issue for 200 years. But the only time the Supreme Court actually addressed the Second Amendment really was in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a guy with a sawed-off shotgun. It found that guns can be regulated, but it was very vague and it didn't address the whole issue of what the founding fathers meant about can militias own the guns or can individuals, can people own the guns. And it was a very mixed bag. In fact, both advocates on both sides of it use U.S. v. Miller to help their arguments. But then over the next 75 years there were nine challenges to gun restriction and all of them failed. And the gun control advocates got very comfortable. So here was another challenge and this one succeeded. And it went so much further.

SIMON: I noticed Judge Silverman, though, in his ruling said that he still believes it's the right of the government to set what I think he called sensible rules the same way you would for owning and operating a motor vehicle.

SULLIVAN: Yes. The ruling says that you can regulate handguns. But it's basically saying that these regulations have gone so far that it's preventing anybody from owning a gun. And they're saying that not only is that a problem, but it's a violation of the Second Amendment. And it's the first time an appellate court has taken it that far.

SIMON: So next week, could you walk into a store in the District of Columbia and buy a handgun, or if lived in the District of Columbia bring one home from Virginia?

SULLIVAN: It's unlikely. The city is going to appeal this decision by most people's accounts. Until then, they'll probably stay the decision and they won't make any radical departures from the law right now until this makes its way up the courts.

SIMON: And you think it's headed to the Supreme Court?

SULLIVAN: Advocates on both sides of this issue and legal experts say absolutely. And with the addition of two conservative justices on the Supreme Court now, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, the gun control folks are very nervous about this going to the Supreme Court. But the timing should be interesting. Even if the District asks for the full panel of appellate judges to reconsider the decision, even if that's denied, they'll likely appeal to the Supreme Court in the fall. That means that oral arguments will be early next year, right in the middle of the president election.

SIMON: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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