The United States Supreme Court may yet decide to hear a case with would have far-reaching implications on the right of Americans to own firearms. America’s love affair with guns is deeply rooted in its history and enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states:
“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 Second Amendment is said to be derived from the English common law concept of the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and, when necessary, for the defense of the state. Hence, the reference to “a well-regulated militia”.
How well regulated ? This is the crux of the legal question now sought to be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the Constitutional guarantee “to keep and bear arms” covers a collective right, and hence limits gun use in the context of militia service, or whether the right extends to individual gun ownership. Amazingly, this issue has never before been directly addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The present lawsuit was initiated by Robert Levy, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, a prominent libertarian think-tank based in Washington, D.C. Levy recruited six plaintiffs for the express purpose of bringing the question of individual gun ownership before the High Court. The plaintiffs sought to question the constitutionality of a three decades old gun-control law of the District of Columbia, one of the nation’s strictest, which bans ownership of handguns and requires any other guns in the home to be disassembled or secured by triggers locks.
The core issue is presented thus: whether a resident of Washington D.C. can keep a handgun at home for self-protection by virtue of the Second Amendment. In other words, the case raises a constitutional issue pertaining to individual gun use as opposed to collective gun ownership as exercised thru membership in a state militia.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in March 2007 by a vote of 2 to 1 that the right to bear arms is “individual” in character, and not tied to militia service. The Washington D.C. statute was therefore ruled unconstitutional. The District of Columbia filed an appeal before the federal Supreme Court, citing three errors:
First, it says, the Second Amendment’s text and history, properly understood, show that the amendment grants a right that “may be exercised only in connection with service in a state-regulated militia.”
Second, the brief observes that the amendment was drafted as a limitation on the authority of the federal government, not of the states, and that even if the District of Columbia is considered the equivalent of a state, “legislation limited to the district can pose no threat to the interests the Second Amendment was enacted to protect.”
Finally, the District of Columbia argues that even if gun ownership is an individual right, the handgun ban is amply justified as a “reasonable regulation” by considerations of public safety and health, as well as by the fact that the law permits ownership of other weapons.
It would be interesting to see how the Roberts Court will decide this rather explosive (pun intended) issue. Both sides of the gun-regulation divide will be sniping at each other on the basis of the Court’s ruling for years to come. This landmark ruling may change the American social landscape as much as other Supreme Court decisions on race, gender-equality and abortion have.