Gun case presents quandary for Supreme Court justices

The Supreme Court is considering a case that could touch on whether states and cities may infringe upon the right to own firearms.
The Supreme Court is considering a case that could touch on whether states and cities may infringe upon the right to own firearms. (Jack Kurtz/arizona Republic Via Associated Press)
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

As a member of the Junior ROTC, teenager Antonin Scalia toted his rifle on the subway ride back and forth to Queens. As a hunter, he speaks lyrically of stalking wild turkeys. And as a justice, he may have reached the pinnacle of his more than two decades on the Supreme Court when he wrote the majority opinion that said the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own a firearm.

But when the justices on Tuesday confront the question of whether the amendment applies to state and local governments -- not just the federal government and its enclaves, such as the District of Columbia -- the court's most prominent gun enthusiast faces something of a constitutional quandary.

The most likely path to recognizing gun ownership as a fundamental right is one that has been heavily criticized by Scalia and other conservative scholars, and it seems inconsistent with his belief that the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of its framers' "original meaning."

The alternative, one embraced by an unlikely coalition of libertarian, liberal and some conservative scholars and activists, would apply the Bill of Rights to the states in a way they say is more grounded in the Constitution. But it is also a route that could open what is invariably described as a Pandora's box of additional rights of citizenship -- health care, for instance, or housing.

The debate comes in McDonald v. Chicago, a case with great significance just on the gun-control front. A decision that states and cities may not infringe upon the right to own a firearm for self-defense could eventually call into question all manner of restrictions on gun ownership and registration, limits on who is eligible to own a gun and whether the carrying of weapons can be regulated.

On the surface, the issue would seem "easy as pie," as Scalia sometimes breezily dismisses constitutional decisions that cause other justices deep consternation. It is a challenge of handgun bans in Chicago and the suburb of Oak Park, Ill., that are nearly identical to Washington's restrictions struck by the court in 2008 in the landmark ruling District of Columbia v. Heller.

Most lawyers and scholars who follow the court think the cities have a losing hand; they say it is unlikely the five justices who made up the majority in Heller will decide that the right to own a firearm for self-protection exists only in a federal enclave. But the question of whether the Second Amendment applies to the states was specifically left unanswered in that case.

To most, it might seem illogical that the Bill of Rights would apply only to actions of the federal government, but that was its intent. Over the years, the court has said most of it applies -- or in the court's language is "incorporated" -- through the 14th Amendment.

That post-Civil War amendment was meant to protect rights and outlaw discrimination. It forbade states to pass laws that abridged "the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." It said states may not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" and guaranteed "equal protection of the laws."

Mostly, the justices have used the "due process" clause to incorporate the majority of the Bill of Rights. The National Rifle Association and others have urged the court to continue to use it to incorporate the Second Amendment.

Reviving another clause

But others, notably scholars from the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center and the libertarian Cato Institute, have urged the court to revive another clause from the 14th Amendment, the one that protects the "privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" -- 19th-century-speak for "rights." An 1873 Supreme Court decision has buried the "privileges or immunities clause" by saying it covered only a narrow range of national rights, such as traveling to the capital.

The justices said in taking the McDonald case they would decide whether either clause incorporated the Second Amendment. And the exercise will provide interesting revelations.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company