ARI SHAPIRO, host:
From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. Sitting in for Steve Inskeep, I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. We return now to the historic Supreme Court decision handed down this morning. The high court declared for the first time that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of individual Americans to keep and bear arms. The vote was five to four. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us now from the Supreme Court to explain exactly what this ruling means. Nina, hello.
NINA TOTENBERG: Hi, there, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Describe for us, first, the scene in the courtroom.
TOTENBERG: Well, this is the last day of the court term, and it was a very dramatic moment because everybody knew this was the case that everybody had been waiting for. Gun owners, gun rights advocates have been pushing for most of this and the last century to get this a declared right and have, until now, been unsuccessful. But Justice Scalia, announcing the opinion for the court majority, and then the dissent, announced by Justice Stevens for the four dissenters, describing some 154 pages of opinions today on what the right to bear arms is.
MONTAGNE: Nina, set up the issues for us.
TOTENBERG: The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads, just so we all are reading from the same page, 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. So you have talk about a right of the people, and you have talk about it being connected to the militia. And for most of the last century, the courts have interpreted that language to mean that the right to bear arms is a collective right, associated with military service, not a personal right. Now last year, a federal appeals court here in Washington invalidated the city's ban on handguns, saying that there's an individual right. And today, the Supreme Court agreed, saying that individual Americans have the right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes such as defense of home and family.
MONTAGNE: And it doesn't end there. What kind of regulations did the court say can be imposed?
TOTENBERG: Well, that's really where this gets very hairy. Justice Scalia said basically that this is too early for us to define what the parameters are of this right. This is our first ruling on this issue, and we don't have to say exactly what the parameters are. What he did say is that nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast out on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or on laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. He went on to say, however, if you're talking about an M-16, in short, bans on assault weapons, his language is extremely unclear. And he quite forthrightly said we're going to have to decide some of these issues in the future, and this is the beginning of a long journey.
MONTAGNE: And what did the four dissenters say?
TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Stevens, speaking for them, accused the majority, the five-justice majority, of putting the court into a political thicket that conservatives, said Justices Stevens, would never countenance that this is the business of state legislatures and that the courts should have stayed out of it. This is a balancing act, he said, between what's good for public safety and what the individual right is, and that's the kind of thing that should be left to state legislatures. He lost. It was a close call, but it was five to four, and that point of view did not prevail. And so this is the beginning of, I think, a lot of Sturm und Drang about what the right to bear arms is and what the limits, the permissible limits are.
MONTAGNE: Nina, thank you very much.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Nina Totenberg speaking to us from the Supreme Court on the high court's decision today affirming an individual right to keep and bear arms.
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