In seemingly less time than it takes to say “ready on the firing line,” the U.S. Supreme Court will be embroiled in the firearms culture wars as it rules on what the Second Amendment really means when it comes to gun ownership. Six residents of the District of Columbia have filed suit to lift the ban on keeping handguns in their homes. Briefs are to be filed by January, arguments are set for March, a decision is expected by June.
Washington, D.C. has one of the most restrictive gun laws on the books. Handguns in the home are prohibited in the nationâ€™s capital, and although rifles and shotguns are allowed, they must be unloaded, disassembled, and the triggers locked. In other words, if an intruder breaks into your home in D.C., you might as well defend yourself with a nine iron – if you happen to play golf.
Those who support the status quo say 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] really doesnâ€™t guarantee the right of an individual to have a gun. It only guarantees a collective right to have a gun in a militia – the military force that has evolved into todayâ€™s National Guard. But Judge Lawrence Silberman said in his opinion that since militias of the colonial era no longer exist, gun ownership based on “a well-regulated Militia” is meaningless.
Keep in mind that Washington, D.C. has one of the highest and most violent crime rates in the country. It has held the title of “murder capital of the nation” on more than one occasion. A recent phenomenon is the practice of a felon shooting a victim whether he or she complies with the felonâ€™s demands or not. If you donâ€™t hand over your wallet, you are shot. If you hand over your wallet, you are shot. And the shootings are frequently execution-style: several shots to the head at close range.
So given the likely outcome of a confrontation with a criminal, what is the rationale for prohibiting possession of handguns and other firearms for private use in the home? So far, no one has addressed this question directly. Instead they have played philosophical games with the meaning of “militia” rather than discuss the right of individuals to privately possess and bear their own firearms. One should also remember that in colonial times members of the militia were “civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion.” And when the states called these individuals to serve, they were often expected to show up bearing arms supplied by themselves. In these instances the state did not provide weapons for the militiamen.
No one is quarreling with the practice of prohibiting felons and the mentally deranged from owning guns. To use a timeworn example, we have freedom of speech, but are prohibited from shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Most who favor private gun ownership also agree that certain types of guns – military weapons mostly – should also be strictly regulated, and have indeed been so since 1934.
Those who have examined the tendencies of the Supreme Court justices to vote one way or another believe the outcome of the upcoming Second Amendment vote will tend to be on the conservative side. That is, the justices, for certain Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, will interpret the amendment as embracing individual rights rather than the rights of states or the militia.
One legal scholar, Leonard W. Levy, has even proposed in his book, Origins of the Bill of Rights, that a new Second Amendment be proposed. The current Second Amendment would be repealed, and in its place the following language would be substituted: The right of the people to keep arms reasonably for hunting, sport, collecting, and personal defense shall not be infringed. Note that the term “militia” is removed from the resolution. The rewritten amendment would more accurately reflect how firearms have become an ineradicable part of our history and culture through their lawful use in personal defense and sport.
It is also well to remember that every other section of the Bill of Rights deals with individual liberties. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the Second Amendment also focuses on the self-protection rights of the individual as well. Perhaps, at a later date, the court might consider whether the founding fathers wrote the Second Amendment to make certain that the people had the wherewithal to confront a tyrannical government. In view of some of the recent machinations of the current regime, the accession of executive power, and the suppression of certain freedoms, their fear doesnâ€™t seem that far-fetched.
Another consequence, intended or not, is that the upcoming ruling by the Supreme Court, expected, as we noted, in June occurs just months before the 2008 presidential election. So like it or not, whoever has survived as a contender in the race at that time will be faced with yet another “third rail” issue. Because the Supreme Courtâ€™s review is both rare and noteworthy (the first such review in 70 years), no candidate will be able to sidestep their way out of reportersâ€™ questions. On the other hand, the D.C. government did its own soft-shoe dance by declaring that having a handgun in the home “comes at the expense of the safety of those who may be victims.” Whatever rights the Second Amendment guarantees, the Washington officials continued, “it does not require the District to stand by while it citizens die.” The affront and insult of that statement are evidenced by the first three stories on every evening TV newscast: another citizen gunned down by thugs in the victimâ€™s home or nearby neighborhood.
It should be noted that the spokesman for Handgun Control, Inc. – also known as the Brady Campaign – urged the District of Columbia government not to appeal the issue of its restrictive gun control laws because it was feared the issue would be defeated. So the individual right to keep and bear arms, all but outlawed in D.C., will have its day on the national stage of the Supreme Court. Depending on the outcome, other cities that have restrictive gun laws, such as Chicago, will be watching closely, for obvious reasons.
Some presidential candidates have already jumped on the gun control bandwagon. Rudy Giuliani praised the Supreme Courtâ€™s decision to hear the case, saying the D.C. law should be reversed. Barack Obama says he believes the existing gun ban in Washington is constitutional and that local communities have the right to enact gun control laws. Whatever candidates are still in the race in January will also have to take a stand. It could just be the most decisive issue of the campaign.