Justices Appear Skeptical Of D.C.'s Handgun Ban

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A majority of the Supreme Court indicated a readiness yesterday to settle decades of constitutional debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment by declaring that it provides an individual right to own a gun for self-defense.

Such a finding could doom the District of Columbia's ban on private handgun possession, the country's toughest gun-control law, and significantly change the tone and direction of the nation's political battles over gun control.

During oral arguments that drew spectators who had waited for days to be in the courtroom, there was far more skepticism among the justices about the constitutionality of the District's ban on private handgun possession than defense of it.

Justices balanced the commands of a Constitution written more than 200 years ago with the modern-day questions presented by a gun ban that, it was argued, either prevents the law-abiding from a means of self-protection or keeps more guns off the streets of the nation's capital.

The court seemed swept up in the historic nature of its endeavor, examining a part of the Constitution that most believe has never been clearly defined. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. encouraged the lawyers to keep talking well beyond the scheduled 75 minutes.

For all the references to Lord Blackstone and the English Bill of Rights and the Framers' intent, Roberts was succinct in describing how he might view the District's arguments that its gun law is reasonable.

"What's reasonable about a total ban on possession?" he asked Washington lawyer Walter E. Dellinger III, who represented the city.

The clauses 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" -- have long vexed constitutional scholars. The Supreme Court's last major ruling on the subject, in 1939, stressed the militia-related aspects of the provision.

Roberts quickly signaled his disagreement. "If it is limited to state militias, why would they say 'the right of the people'?" he asked.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often the deciding vote on the divided court, was next. "In my view," he said, "there's a general right to bear arms quite without reference to the militia either way."

Kennedy expressed, at least three times during the argument, his disbelief that the Framers had not been also concerned about the ability of "the remote settler to defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. also lent support to the individual interpretation. Justice Clarence Thomas was silent during the arguments, as is his custom, but has previously expressed such a view.

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