Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier (left) and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty face reporters March 18, after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the district's handgun ban.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier (left) and District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty face reporters March 18, after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the district's handgun ban. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In its first comprehensive look at the Second Amendment right to bear arms, the Supreme Court is expected to rule Thursday on the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns.
The District of Columbia's ban is considered the nation's strictest gun-control law. A ruling by the court to strike it down could threaten other gun-control measures across the country, including laws that ban machine guns or assault weapons.
Although the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791, the court has never definitively said what it means to have the right to keep and bear arms. The current dispute over gun rights raises several important questions.
How have courts previously ruled on questions about the Second Amendment?
The Second Amendment to the Constitution states: "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." For most of the last century, the courts have interpreted the amendment to mean that the right to bear arms is a collective right associated with military service, not a personal right.
The last time the Supreme Court ruled on the right to bear arms was in 1939. The justices upheld a federal ban on sawed-off shotguns and implied that the Founding Fathers adopted the Second Amendment to ensure that the then-new federal government could not disarm state militias.
But don't others see gun ownership as an individual right?
Yes. For many, the Second Amendment right to bear arms means the individual right to own and use a gun, if necessary, as a weapon against invaders, or even an oppressive government.
What clues did the justices give about how they might rule when they heard oral arguments in March?
A majority of the justices indicated they believed the right to bear arms is an individual right, like the right of free speech or the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger defended the District's ban. He argued that the amendment was adopted in 1791 to reassure the states that the new federal government could not disarm state militias. But a majority of the justices appeared skeptical.
"If it is limited to state militias, why would they say the right of the people?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
Justice Anthony Kennedy added, "In effect, the amendment says we reaffirm the right to have a militia, we've established it, but in addition, there is a right to bear arms."
What's behind the case challenging Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban?
The lawsuit was initially brought by six individuals, including Shelly Parker, a computer software designer who received death threats from a local drug dealer after she organized homeowners to report drug activity in her neighborhood. One night, a drug dealer tried to break into her house and threatened to kill her. Parker chased him away by setting off the burglar alarm. A police officer suggested she get a gun, even though handguns are illegal in the District of Columbia. She joined a lawsuit organized by two local lawyers to challenge the ban.
What do Washington, D.C., officials say about the ban?
The District defends its law, which was passed in 1976, arguing that handguns are responsible for more than 80 percent of the city's murders and most of the city's armed assaults. The city also cites the danger handguns pose to children and to police called into domestic violence situations. The District contends that its residents are allowed to have other firearms at home for self-protection as long as the weapons have trigger locks or are unassembled.
How did the case arrive at the Supreme Court?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against the city's gun ban in 2007, becoming the first federal court in modern times to invalidate a gun regulation as an unconstitutional restriction on the right to keep and bear arms. The District appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
How do gun-control advocates expect the court to rule?
Officials at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said recently that they expect Washington's 32-year-old handgun ban to fall. But they believe that background checks, limits on large-volume gun sales and prohibitions on certain categories of weapons can survive.
From staff reports and the Associated Press.