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Justices Reject D.C. Ban On Handgun Ownership

The court, splitting along ideological lines, on June 26 declared the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership unconstitutional.

The two also sparred over the court's last look at the Second Amendment, in the 1939 case United States v. Miller. Scalia dismissed it as a halfhearted examination that did not consider the amendment's historical origins, while Stevens said that "hundreds of judges have relied on" it to view the amendment's guarantee as related to militia service.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, whose decision the justices upheld yesterday in District of Columbia v. Heller, was the first to use the individual-right theory to strike a local gun-control law.

How other restrictions will fare under the court's new directives is unclear.

Scalia said the opinion should not be read to cast doubt on "longstanding prohibitions" on gun possession by "felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." He added that the list was not meant to be exhaustive.

He also said the court recognized limitations on the right to keep and carry arms, and he indicated that federal bans on weapons such as machine guns may not be threatened.

But the majority declined to set a level of scrutiny by which judges should evaluate the constitutionality of gun restrictions that governments may set. It rejected Breyer's proposal to ask whether the statute burdens the right out of proportion to the "salutary effects" upon government interests.

Breyer said the District's law would have met that burden.

But Scalia said one clear lesson from the decision is that the law went too far.

"The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table," he wrote. "These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home."

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