In the most important ruling on gun control in 70 years, a federal appeals court Friday for the first time used the Second Amendment to strike down a gun law.
In a 2-1 decision, the court overturned the District of Columbia’s long-standing handgun ban, rejecting the city’s argument that the Second Amendment right to bear arms applied only to militias.
The majority held that the activities protected by the Second Amendment “are not limited to militia service, nor is an individual’s enjoyment of the right contingent” on enrollment in a militia.
The ruling is a victory for Tom Palmer, a Washington resident who was once assaulted and wants a gun in the house for self-defense.
"The fact is that the criminals don't obey the law and they do have guns," he said. "It's the law-abiding citizens who are disarmed by this law."
He was one of six who went to court to challenge the city's gun law, passed as an anti-crime measure 30 years ago. It outlaws handguns or rifles except for residents with permits, mainly police or security guards.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said the ruling could put more guns in the hands of young people. "I am personally deeply disappointed and quite frankly outraged by today's decision," he said. "Today's decision flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia."
Rival judicial views
The ruling revives a long fight over the 27 words of the Second Amendment: "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."
Gun control advocates argue that the phrase "well-regulated militia" means that owning a gun is a group right, subject to restriction.
But the court essentially said the right to bear arms is an individual right for private activities, including self-defense.
“The district’s definition of the militia is just too narrow,” Judge Laurence Silberman wrote for the majority. “There are too many instances of ‘bear arms’ indicating private use to conclude that the drafters intended only a military sense.”
That's precisely the view that the National Rifle Association has advocated for decades.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said the decision gives the district “a crack in the door to join the rest of the country in full constitutional freedom.”
Judge Karen Henderson dissented, writing that the Second Amendment does not apply to the District of Columbia because it is not a state.
Silberman wrote that the Second Amendment is still “subject to the same sort of reasonable restrictions that have been recognized as limiting, for instance, the First Amendment.”
Such restrictions might include gun registration, firearms testing to promote public safety or restrictions on gun ownership for criminals or those deemed mentally ill.
Time for Supreme Court?
The city says it will appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
The Bush administration has endorsed individual gun-ownership rights, but the Supreme Court has never settled the issue.
“I think this is well positioned for review of the Supreme Court,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. He said the D.C. circuit is historically influential with the Supreme Court because it often deals with constitutional questions.
“You also have a very well-reasoned opinion, both in the majority and the dissent,” Turley said.
If the dispute makes it to the high court, it would be the first case in nearly 70 years to address the Second Amendment’s scope.
Legal experts say Friday's ruling launches a huge battle.
"This is a monumental case that sets up the biggest fight over gun rights in the modern history of the United States," said expert Tom Goldstein.
New York and Chicago have similar strict gun laws. And a host of local and federal laws regulate ownership.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also threw out the district’s requirement that registered firearms be kept unloaded, disassembled and under trigger lock.
Gun control groups fear that if Friday's ruling stands, it could weaken gun laws nationwide.
"You're allowing any sort of a gun law, whether it's a waiting period, a background check, you leave it open to challenge," said gun control advocate Paul Helmke.