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Supreme Court affirms fundamental right to bear arms

Organized by the group "Restore the Constitution," self-proclaimed patriots rallied in D.C. and Viriginia for Second Amendment rights. At the Virginia rally in Fort Hunt in Alexandria, many demonstrators carried guns intending to make history as the first people to rally with firearms in a national park.

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By Robert Barnes and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Second Amendment provides Americans a fundamental right to bear arms that cannot be violated by state and local governments, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a long-sought victory for gun rights advocates.

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The 5 to 4 decision does not strike down any gun-control laws, nor does it elaborate on what kind of laws would offend the Constitution. One justice predicted that an "avalanche" of lawsuits would be filed across the country asking federal judges to define the boundaries of gun ownership and government regulation.

But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the opinion for the court's dominant conservatives, said: "It is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty."

(Photos from Patriot's Day gun rights rally)

The decision extended the court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that "the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home." That decision applied only to federal laws and federal enclaves such as Washington; it was the first time the court had said there was an individual right to gun ownership rather than one related to military service.

Monday's decision might be more symbolic than substantive, at least initially. No cities have laws as restrictive as the handgun bans in the District and in Monday's case from Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park. Although the court's decision did not specifically strike down those laws, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said it will make the city's 28-year-old law "unenforceable."

Those who have fought for years for such an interpretation of the Second Amendment were ecstatic. The decision was "a great moment in American history," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, marking the occasion when "the Second Amendment becomes a real part of constitutional law."

The decision came on a typically frenetic last day of the court's term. But it was also one marked by sadness, melancholy and change.

Sadness and change

Bow ties popped up on men and woman throughout the courtroom, a tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, who first came to work at the court 63 years ago as a clerk. He is retiring from the seat he assumed on Dec. 19, 1975, and said in a letter to his colleagues that "if I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job."

Also on the bench was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose husband of 56 years, Martin D. Ginsburg, died on Sunday. Ginsburg, 77, looked directly ahead as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recounted Martin Ginsburg's accomplishments as a renowned tax lawyer and university professor, and she smiled sadly when Roberts mentioned her husband's skills as a "gourmet cook."

The court's gun decision in McDonald v. Chicago divided the nine justices just as the Heller case had done almost exactly two years earlier. Roberts and Alito were in the majority with Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Stevens and Ginsburg dissented, along with Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, who was marking her first term replacing David H. Souter.

States and cities have a variety of laws that restrict gun ownership, such as requiring mental health background checks or waiting periods before purchases. And the court's designation of gun ownership as a fundamental right, like freedom of speech, will provide a tool for those who want to challenge restrictive local laws. Subsequent legal battles may set national guidelines on restrictions on who can own guns, what kind of firearms and whether weapons can be carried outside the home.


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