High Court's First Major Look at Second Amendment

The Supreme Court's decision Thursday to overturn the District of Columbia's 32-year-old ban on handguns is the high court's first conclusive interpretation of the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791.

The 5-4 ruling strikes down the District's ban on handguns — one of the strictest in the nation — as incongruent with the Second Amendment.

At issue was whether the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own guns no matter what, or if that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia.

The 1976 law adopted by the D.C. barred residents from owning handguns unless they had one before the law took effect. Under the law, shotguns and rifles may be kept in homes, but they must be registered, kept unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with trigger locks.

The District argues handguns are responsible for more than 80 percent of the city's homicides and most armed assaults. It also cites the danger handguns pose to children and to police called into domestic violence situations.

Prior to Thursday's decision, anti-gun groups said they expected the ban to be overturned, but that background checks, limits on large-volume gun sales and prohibitions on certain categories of weapons would survive.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled on the right to bear arms was in 1939. At the time, the justices upheld a federal ban on sawed-off shotguns. They implied that the Founding Fathers adopted the amendment to ensure the then-new federal government could not disarm state militias.

In Thursday's ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for four colleagues, said the Constitution does not permit "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home." He added, however, that nothing in Thursday's ruling should "cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings."

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority of justices "would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons." Stevens said such evidence "is nowhere to be found."

The Supreme Court ruling upheld a 2007 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

From NPR reports and the Associated Press

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