Historic Decision Renews Old Debate

By Dan Balz and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 27, 2008

With yesterday's decision, the Supreme Court pushed the gun issue back to the forefront of the nation's agenda, opening a new chapter in what has been one of the most contentious and divisive debates in American politics for the past four decades.

Advocacy groups braced for new skirmishes, both in courts and in legislatures. Gun rights advocates, hailing what they called a historic milestone, immediately targeted other jurisdictions with laws similar to those in the District of Columbia, whose handgun ban was struck down yesterday. Defenders of gun control took heart from language in the ruling acknowledging the constitutionality of some reasonable restrictions, but they warned of a new assault on those restrictions.

Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) endorsed the essential finding in the court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. But the gap between their past positions on gun control sparked the resurgence of a cultural debate between the presidential candidates that is likely to continue until November.

The historical significance of yesterday's ruling was more obvious than what the practical impact may be, given that it was the first time the high court declared that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership.

The debate "has been huge for a long time, and the court has ducked it," said Nicholas Johnson, a professor of law at Fordham University. "So historically it's important because the gun issue divides us so substantially and because we've finally gotten some resolution, but also because we've gone so long without a resolution."

Historian Alan Brinkley of Columbia University said that while the court struck a balance between rights and restrictions, "the movement has been toward greater and greater regulation of guns, and this is a step back -- maybe not a big step back, but certainly a symbolic one. It raises the question of how many more steps back the court might take."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 after the previous mayor, George Moscone, was shot and killed in City Hall, said the decision will "open the doors to litigation against every gun safety law that states have passed -- assault weapons bans, trigger locks and all the rest of it."

Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) of Chicago, whose strict gun-control law now faces a challenge, said the ruling was "a very frightening decision" and asked, "Does this lead to everyone having a gun in our society?"

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who has put together Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a 320-member coalition, reacted more cautiously. He noted that efforts to fight illegal guns have "nothing to do" with Second Amendment rights.

"Today's decision by the Supreme Court upholding those rights will benefit our coalition by finally putting to rest the ideological debates that have for too long obscured an obvious fact: Criminals, who have no right to purchase or possess guns, nevertheless have easy access to them," he said.

Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, called the ruling a "monumental decision" that will prompt more challenges and more debate. "This has put politicians on notice that this is a fundamental right," he said. "It can't be rationed. It can't be unduly restricted on the whims of local officials."

Guns are embedded in American culture as in no other developed nation in the world. From the Revolution to the frontier of the Wild West to the traditions of rural and small-town life, guns have occupied a central role in U.S. history and national mythology.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company