For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own a firearm and not just the right of states to maintain militias. In a 5-4 vote, the court held that the Constitution does not allow, as Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.''
To the relief of gun-control advocates, the court's conservatives, joined by the more moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, also said the right to possess a gun for lawful purposes is not unlimited. It left room for government to impose reasonable regulations on firearms. "The court's opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or 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,'' Scalia wrote.
Overall, it was not an unreasonable decision on a politically charged issue. Even Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, now says he believes that lawful gun ownership is an individual right.
Before Thursday's ruling, the high court had refused to take a clear position. It had not spoken on the amendment's meaning since 1939, and then only cryptically. Now, in District of Columbia vs. Heller, the fundamental question has been answered. The ruling tells D.C. that when it enacted a ban on handguns, it was infringing on the constitutional rights of its residents to self-defense.
The case involved Dick Heller, a D.C. special police officer who applied for a registration certificate in order to keep a handgun at home. The District refused Heller's request under one of the strictest gun laws in the nation. The District restrictions amounted to a wholesale prohibition against the possession of handguns, and beyond that, rifles kept in the home had to be dismantled or bound by a trigger lock.
In striking down the D.C. ban, while keeping a gun-licensing process in place, Scalia said, "We have observed that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon … and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid."
Much of the majority's decision was devoted to the historical bases for finding that the founders intended to protect an individual right to possess arms. Scalia noted that in the 18th century, militias consisted of all physically able white males and were considered vital to preserving the common defense. Men at the time also would have possessed guns for self-defense to secure their property and families. These were the interests, Scalia wrote, codified by the Second Amendment.
To those who might believe such interests are no longer relevant, Scalia responded: "Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."
Reasonable people, including constitutional scholars, disagree on how the Second Amendment should be interpreted. The high court has now spoken, and its decision is unlikely to affect gun-related crime rates or sensible gun-control laws.