Supreme Court mulls ‘right to bear arms’
By Patti Waldmeir in Washington
Published: March 18 2008 20:20 | Last updated: March 18 2008 20:20
The US Supreme Court appears ready to rule that Americans have a constitutional right to keep a gun in their home for self-defence, a ruling that could help Republicans in the upcoming presidential election.
Hearing the most important gun rights case in nearly 70 years, the justices on Tuesday spent 98 minutes engrossed in a lively debate about British and American legal traditions relating to the right to bear arms, especially in self-defence.
By the end of Tuesday’s session, it appeared clear that a majority of the court would rule that the US constitution protects the right of individual Americans to “keep and bear arms” – but that federal, state and local governments will retain some powers to regulate firearms.
At issue in the case is the constitution’s second amendment, which includes ambiguous language about gun rights. It says “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”.
The justices sparred over whether those words guarantee the right of individual citizens to bear arms, or only the collective right to bear arms in a state militia.
A majority of the nine justices, including the crucial “swing” justice Anthony Kennedy, who often holds the balance of power on the court, appeared to believe the amendment guaranteed an individual right to weapons.
Justice Kennedy repeatedly insisted that the amendment must have been intended to allow citizens to protect their frontier homes and families against dangers such as attacking Indians or bears, and should provide a similar right to protect the modern home.
The case before the court involves a Washington DC law making it a crime to have any kind of firearm that is ready to fire, either a handgun or a loaded rifle or shotgun, and is among the strictest gun control laws in the US.
Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard, sued the District after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his home for protection. The top court is reviewing a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the DC law and broadly interpreted the right of individuals to bear arms.
The most difficult question for the court is: what kind of laws can governments pass to restrict the constitutional right to keep and bear a gun?
Chief Justice John Roberts made clear that the DC law would not meet his test as a reasonable regulation of firearms ownership. “What is reasonable about a total ban on possession of handguns?” he asked. But several other justices defended the ban as a reasonable response to the crime problem in America’s capital city.
Mr Heller’s lawyer said the court could find that Americans have an individual right to own guns but still allow governments to regulate some types of weapons, such as machine guns, and who can own them.
Political analysts said a ruling in favour of gun rights could help Republicans, especially in a close general election.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008