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The court strikes down a restrictive handgun law in Chicago.
Published Jun. 29, 2010

New York Times

WASHINGTON - The Second Amendment's guarantee of an individual right to bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 5-4 decision.

The ruling came almost exactly two years after the court first ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns in District of Columbia vs. Heller, another 5-4 decision.

But the Heller case addressed only federal laws; it left open the question of whether Second Amendment rights protect gun owners from overreaching by state and local governments.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the right to self-defense protected by the Second Amendment was fundamental to the American conception of ordered liberty. Like other provisions of the Bill of Rights setting out such fundamental protections, he said, it must be applied to limit not only federal power but also that of state and local governments.

The ruling is an enormous symbolic victory for supporters of gun rights, but its short-term practical effect is unclear. As in the Heller decision, the justices left for another day just what kinds of gun control laws can be reconciled with Second Amendment. The majority said little more than that there is a right to keep handguns in the home for self-defense.

Indeed, over 200 pages of opinions, the court did not even decide the constitutionality of the two gun control laws at issue in the case, from Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. The justices returned the case to the lower courts to decide whether those exceptionally strict laws, which effectively banned the possession of handguns, can be reconciled with the Second Amendment.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley said he was disappointed by the ruling because it made the city's ban unenforceable.

"Across the country, cities are struggling with how to address this issue," Daley said. "Common sense tells you we need fewer guns on the street, not more guns."

Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and, in large part, Clarence Thomas, acknowledged that the decision might "lead to extensive and costly litigation," but said that was the price of protecting constitutional freedoms.

The majority offered the lower courts little guidance about how much protection the Second Amendment affords. In a part of his opinion that Thomas declined to join, Alito reiterated the caveats in the Heller decision, saying the court did not mean to cast doubt on laws prohibiting possession of guns by felons and people who suffer from mental illness, laws forbidding carrying guns in sensitive places like schools and government buildings, or laws regulating the commercial sale of firearms.

The important point was a broad one, Alito wrote: that the Second Amendment, like other provisions of the Bill of Rights, must be applied to the states under the 14th Amendment.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. They said the Heller decision remained incorrect and added that they would not have extended its protections to state and local laws even had it been correctly decided.

"Although the court's decision in this case might be seen as a mere adjunct to Heller," Stevens wrote, "the consequences could prove far more destructive - quite literally - to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."

Busy day on bench

Supreme Court justices completed their work by issuing opinions in the final cases of the term. The court ruled on a public oversight board and on whether a university must recognize a club that bars gay students. The court also let a clergy abuse suit against the Vatican move forward. 4A

Other decisions

The court completed its work by issuing opinions in its final cases of the term:

. ACCOUNTING REGULATORS: The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the government-run accounting board created after the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, but then fixed the problem by putting its board members under the control of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The justices invalidated a minor provision of the law governing the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, but affirmed the legitimacy of the board itself. The board was established in 2002 as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which Congress passed after the Enron debacle exposed a wave of accounting chicanery used by some companies to pump up their stock prices during the late 1990s bull market.

. STUDENT GROUPS: By a vote of 5 to 4, the justices said that a public university does not have to recognize a student religious group that wants to exclude gays and others who share its core beliefs. The University of California's Hastings College of the Law said its antidiscrimination policy required officially recognized student groups to include all who wanted to join. The Christian Legal Society argued that being forced to include those who did not share its beliefs violated constitutional protections of freedom of association and exercise of religion.

. CLERGY ABUSE: A lawsuit against the Vatican moved forward when the court refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See. Monday's development represents a significant advance for what many believed to be a long-shot claim that the Vatican bears legal responsibility for molester priests.

The high court's decision not to stop the lawsuit means the clergy sex abuse case will go to trial in an Oregon district court.