Thursday, June 26, 2008

Gun Rights and Gun Regulation: The Court Upheld Both

I'm rather surprised that President Bush, John McCain and the National Rifle Association view today's Supreme Court decison in DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER as such a stupendous triumph for gun rights.

To Review Briefly. The Supreme Court held today that District of Columbia laws banning the possession of handguns in one's home were unconstitutional. They also overturned a requirement that any other types of guns in one's home be either fitted with a trigger lock or disassembled.

Specifically, Justice Antonin Scalia held for the majority that the Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms" was a right of individuals. The amendment itself is worded in an ambiguous way that also allows the interpretation of rights to bear arms to be associated more with militias. According to the Constitution:
"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."

For the court majority, this language means that the amendment refers to individuals rather than the militias mentioned in the first part of the amendment.

A Muddy Picture. This was the first time that the Supreme Court had held that the Second Amendment applied to individuals. The NRA, President Bush, and John McCain were ecstatic. Here's the NRA:
“This is a great moment in American history. It vindicates individual Americans all over this country who have always known that this is their freedom worth protecting,” declared NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “Our founding
fathers wrote and intended the Second Amendment to be an individual right. The
Supreme Court has now acknowledged it. The Second Amendment as an individual
right now becomes a real permanent part of American Constitutional law.”

I'm not sure why the NRA is being so triumphalist here. Given that the decision was 5-4, there's a good chance that it won't be "a real permanent part of American Constitutional law."

More precisely, Scalia's opinion goes also goes far to validate government regulation of guns as weapons. The Court majority ordered that Washington, D. C. allow Heller and others to register their handguns according to the city's weapons registration laws. However, it left those registration laws standing. The implication is that the registration of guns is as constitutional as registering cars.

The Court also held that the individual right to bears arms did not extend to "dangerous and unusual weapons" (p 55) which appears to mean that the states or federal government might legitimately regulate or ban items like assault rifles, armor piercing bullets, and perhaps automatic pistols. Of course, there's plenty of room for debate about what constitutes "dangerous and unusual weapons" but Justice Scalia specifically mentions M-16 rifles as weapons that might be legitimately banned.

If people in the anti-gun movement had imagination, they would start drafting legislation that expansively defined "dangerous and unusual weapons." By doing so, they might cripple the gun industry by banning their most profitable products.

Finally, Justice Scalia was emphatic about individuals having the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of defending their own homes. But he did not give a clear indication at all that individuals had a right to keep and bear arms in any other context whatsoever. In other words, Scalia formulated the right to bear arms as a much more narrow kind of right than First Amendment rights of free speech, religion, and assembly. It was especially ominous for the gun faction that Scalia did not mention hunting, target practice, or any other recreational use for guns. People generally think of these practices as sacrosanct, but Scalia's opinion provides no basis for thinking that they might not be further regulated or banned altogether.

Conclusion. In other words, the Court majority recognized gun ownership as a constitutional right, but also allowed for expansive government regulation of that right. In the future, a more liberal court majority might expand the scope regulation in ways that actually reduce gun ownership.

And that would be a good thing.

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