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Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban
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Supreme Court Strikes Down D.C. Handgun Ban



From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, why President Bush is removing North Korea from the terrorism watch list.

BRAND: First, though, the U.S. Supreme Court says Americans have a right to own handguns for self-defense and for hunting. The court ruled today that Washington, D.C.'s 32-year-old handgun ban is unconstitutional. The decision was five to four. In a moment we'll hear from the mayor of Atlanta on what that decision means for her city's handgun ban. First, though, we go to legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick for details on the case, and Dahlia, it seems like this decision rested on a lot of semantics, a lot of careful parsing of the wording of the very brief Second Amendment, in other words whether the right to bear arms is a collective right or an individual right.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, That's right; it was sort of a deconstruction literary smackdown at the Supreme Court today, Madeleine, really parsing, carefully parsing the language of the amendment. Almost obscuring the huge, huge magnitude of what was being decided for, in effect for 70 years, that the state of the law has really been, and I think that most people think it's - has been settled, that this is a collective right. It's not an individual right, it's a right that's designed for militias. Today, five-four, Justice Scalia close, close, close textually reading, the court, the precedents and the amendment itself says no. It's an individual right and that really launches a sea change in the way we think about the Second Amendment.

BRAND: Right, and does it mean specifically handguns or was he talking about all guns, all arms?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, he certainly said that there is a fundamental individual right to bear all arms, but he quickly said as is the case with other rights, including the right to free speech, under the First Amendment that doesn't go unregulated. So it doesn't solve the problem, it simply says, OK, we agree there's a right to bear arms, it's protected by the constitution. Now how does the government regulate it properly?

And he went out of his way to say that the decision leaves in place many other handgun regulations, including background checks, possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, the federal machine gun ban, so it's not as though all gun laws have gone out the window now. But he did say specifically that the D.C. handgun ban, which he calls a total ban on possession of a handgun in the home, really precludes Americans from having access to the class of weapons which is their first choice for self-protection. As an all-out ban it violates the Second Amendment.

BRAND: OK this was a close decision, five to four. What did the dissent say?

Ms. LITHWICK: The dissent essentially went back to that 70-year-old precedent, Miller, and said this is not an open question. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing one of two dissents, said it's been pretty much settled since 1939 that this is a collective and not an individual right and he went on to say that even if this was a close call we should adhere to that precedent, it's not a close call. He went on parse the Second Amendment in almost as much painstaking detail as Justice Scalia. But I think his point was we have to adhere to this precedent. This has been a settled question for 70 years.

BRAND: Well, a settled question and one that has been interpreted by other cities, other states across the nation. Does this mean all these laws will now be in question?

Ms. LITHWICK: Certainly. The NRA is saying they're now filing suits in cities like San Francisco and Chicago that have similar handgun bans and so I think it's fair to say that handgun bans that look and smell like the D.C. handgun ban, and the trigger lock provision of the D.C. ban that was also struck down today, those are going to be suspect in cities across the nation. I think that the harder, thornier question of, OK we now have a fundamental right to bear arms, how do we regulate that? That may be left for another day.

BRAND: Dahlia Lithwick is legal analyst for us and for Thanks again, Dahlia.

Ms. LITHWICK: It's always a pleasure.

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