Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor said Thursday that she would follow a historic ruling affirming Americans' right to own guns for self-defense, but pro-gun activists said they still believe she'd work to limit gun rights if confirmed for the high court.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said Sotomayor told him during a private meeting that she considers the 2008 ruling that struck down a Washington, D.C., handgun ban as settled law that would guide her decisions in future cases. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that individuals have a constitutional right to guns.
But the statement gave little comfort to gun rights activists. Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said that earlier in the week, Sotomayor told him in a similar closed-door session that she stood by an appellate court decision she signed this year that said the Second Amendment protection from curbs on the right to bear arms applied only to federal laws — not state or local ones. That ruling, Maloney v. Cuomo, left it up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the rights recognized in the Heller case applied throughout the country.
The dueling statements called attention to a simmering and politically fraught debate over gun rights that transcends partisan lines. The issue is a tricky one for many Democrats who, like Udall, hail from conservative-leaning states in the South and West and often find themselves at odds with their party's liberal leaders' strong support for gun control measures. They're under intense pressure from gun rights advocates to oppose Sotomayor's nomination, so pinning her down on the topic is a major concern.
Hostile to gun rights?
Gun rights activists have cited the Maloney decision in accusing Sotomayor of being hostile to gun rights. In the case, Sotomayor and two other judges on the 2nd Circuit appeals court upheld a New York state law banning the possession of "chuka sticks." They said they were bound by an 1886 Supreme Court ruling — not by Heller, which didn't address the question of whether the Second Amendment applied to states.
Udall said he asked Sotomayor about her view of the Second Amendment during their visit.
"Clearly she spoke to the fact that settled law is just that, and the Heller case has been considered by the court, and she sees that as the law, and she will work off of what the court decided as other cases may come to the court's attention," Udall said.
DeMint also questioned Sotomayor about gun rights in a meeting earlier this week, and later criticized her for refusing to say the Second Amendment "protects a fundamental right that applies to all Americans." He said Sotomayor's statement on Heller "doesn't tell us much" about her view of the issue given the position she took this year in Maloney.
NRA not satisfied
If it were up to Sotomayor, DeMint said Thursday, Heller would only apply to federal jurisdictions. "(H)er opinion was that the hundreds of millions of Americans in the 50 states do not have a fundamental right to bear arms. She refused to back away from that opinion in my meeting with her," DeMint said Thursday.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called her assertion "a meaningless phrase without more context."
The National Rifle Association also wasn't satisfied.
"We still have serious concerns about positions she's taken in the past, and the answer as far as following precedent is somewhat meaningless, because it does not answer the question of where she stands on the fundamental right of law-abiding Americans to keep and bear arms," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.
Gun advocates opposing Sotomayor
The Supreme Court has applied to state and local laws only those constitutional rights it views as "fundamental," and could consider as early as this fall whether gun rights qualify. The NRA last week appealed a federal appellate court ruling that upheld Chicago's handgun ban on the grounds that Second Amendment protections for gun owners apply only to federal laws.
The Gun Owners of America, another gun rights group, has already come out in strong opposition to Sotomayor and is urging senators to vote against her confirmation.
"We're communicating to the Senate that you may have cast some pro-Second Amendment votes, but those are all going to be canceled out if you vote for her, because when she gets (to the Supreme Court), she's just going to cancel out everything you've voted for anyway," Pratt said. He said the judge has "an unabated hostility to individual gun ownership."
Sotomayor's statement Thursday didn't disturb proponents of gun control measures, even though they were vehemently opposed to the Heller decision.
Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Sotomayor was "doing what justices are supposed to do" — adhering to existing law and precedent unless there's a good reason not to. He said he was confident the judge, with her urban background and experience as a prosecutor in Manhattan, would be an ally to those working to reduce gun violence.
"She's seen what happens when you make it too easy for dangerous people to get guns," Helmke said.