Image: Pro-gun rights demonstrators
Stefan Zaklin  /  EPA
Gun rights advocates rally Thursday outside the Supreme Court in Washington.
NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 6/26/2008 2:29:25 PM ET 2008-06-26T18:29:25

The Supreme Court’s ruling that Americans have a right to own guns for self-defense and hunting was the opening shot in what will be a long legal and legislative battle over exactly how strictly cities and states can regulate firearms, advocates and elected officials said Thursday.

The court’s 5-4 ruling, its first ever addressing the core ambiguity of the Second Amendment, upheld an appeals court ruling that struck down the District of Columbia’s 32-year-old ban on handguns.

The decision went further than even the Bush administration had sought, but it probably leaves most firearms laws intact. It also struck down Washington’s requirement that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or kept disassembled, but it left intact the licensing of guns, and it upheld longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill.

It will take several weeks for the court’s opinion to work its way into local and state laws. Until then, Washington’s ban remains on the books, and city officials promised swift action to rework their law to strictly regulate handguns while complying with the ruling.

“Unfortunately and disappointingly, the Supreme Court opted not to uphold the three-decade-old handgun ban in the District of Columbia,” Mayor Adrian Fenty said.

“More handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence,” he said. “It is important to both respect the court’s authority and then to act quickly.”

Fenty gave the police department 21 days to develop a system for citizens to register lawful handguns in their homes. The city’s attorney general said rules on who could apply for gun licenses would not change — applicants would still be required to be mentally competent adults, and they would still be fingerprinted.

Pro-gun activists claim major victory
Advocates for gun rights quickly declared the ruling a landmark victory and said they would seek to strike down gun regulations across the country.

“This is a great moment in American history,” said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association.

In a statement, the White House said: “The president strongly agrees with the Supreme Court’s historic decision today that the Second Amendment protects the individual right of Americans to keep and bear arms. This has been the administration’s long-held view. The president is also pleased that the Court concluded that the D.C. firearm laws violate that right.”

Gun-control advocates, acknowledging the decision as a defeat, pointed to language in the 5-to-4 ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, upholding “reasonable” restrictions as their basis for defending gun laws wherever they could.

“After the ... ruling, as before, approximately 80 Americans will continue to die from guns every day,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Our weak or nonexistent gun laws contribute to the thousands of senseless gun deaths and injuries in this country that occur each year.”

But, Helmke said, “it’s clear that what the court did today is they limited the extremes. You can no longer have near-total prohibitions on guns, but reasonable restrictions on guns.”

NRA to take battle to states
LaPierre said the NRA would use decision as “the opening salvo in a step-by-step process” to dismantle gun regulations in cities across the country. He said the NRA would begin with lawsuits in San Francisco and in Chicago and several of its suburbs.

Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, which has suffered a recent spate of gun violence affecting everyone from schoolchildren and teachers to the elderly, fervently criticized the ruling, calling it “a very frightening decision” that was incongruent with the Supreme Court’s own security policies.

“You can’t carry a gun into the Supreme Court,” Daley said. “You can’t carry a gun in and around the Capitol building. You can’t get into a capital building without being searched,” Daley said. “So why should the streets of our American cities be open to someone carrying a gun?

“Why can’t you stand outside the Supreme Court with a gun and say, ‘This is my constitutional right?’” he asked.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the other likely target state of the NRA’s first efforts, also criticized the ruling.

“I believe the people of this great country will be less safe because of it,” she said.

Court addresses historical ambiguity
At the heart of the decision was the court’s intention to clarify an amendment that has sown confusion since it was ratified in 1791.

The amendment reads: “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 basic issue for the justices was to decide exactly what those commas mean: Does the amendment protect an individual’s right to own guns no matter what, or is that right somehow tied to service in a state militia?

Scalia said an individual right to bear arms was supported by “the historical narrative” both before and after the Second Amendment was adopted.

The Constitution does not permit “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home,” Scalia said.

In a dissent he summarized from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority “would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons.”

He said such evidence “is nowhere to be found.”

McCain, Obama spar over ruling
The ruling quickly became fodder for the presidential race. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, called it a “landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom in the United States.”

McCain criticized Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee, for refusing to sign a statement calling for Thursday’s ruling.

“Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today’s ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly,” McCain said.

Obama said the decision “will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.”

“As president, I will uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun-owners, hunters and sportsmen,” Obama said. “We can work together to enact common-sense laws, like closing the gun show loophole and improving our background check system, so that guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals.”

Dissenters vs. supporters
The issue had caused a split within the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney supported the appeals court ruling, but others in the administration feared it could lead to the undoing of other gun regulations, including a federal law restricting sales of machine guns. Other laws keep felons from buying guns and provide for an instant background check.

The administration’s divisions mirrored those of the closely divided court.

In a concluding paragraph to his 64-page opinion, Scalia said the justices in the majority “are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country” and believe the Constitution “leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns.”

But in a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas.”

Joining Scalia were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. The other dissenters were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.

The last Supreme Court ruling on the topic came in 1939 in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a sawed-off shotgun. Constitutional scholars disagree over what that case means but agree it did not squarely answer the question of individual versus collective rights.

Forty-four state constitutions include some form of gun rights, which are not affected by the court’s consideration of Washington’s restrictions.

The case is District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290.

By Pete Williams of NBC News and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Brian Mooar of NBC News. NBC affiliates WRC of Washington and WMAQ of Chicago and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Court ruling marks major victory for gun rights

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