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.
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008

The Supreme Court struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handgun possession yesterday and decided for the first time in the nation's history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own a gun for self-defense.

The court's landmark 5 to 4 decision split along ideological grounds and wiped away years of lower court decisions that had held that the intent of the amendment, ratified more than 200 years ago, was to tie the right of gun possession to militia service.

While the decision left for another time how the standards by which gun-control laws nationwide will be evaluated, it was decisive about the District's law, the strictest in the country. In addition to prohibiting ownership of handguns, the city also requires that shotguns and rifles be kept unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.

"We hold that the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The Second Amendment, Scalia said, "surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."

The opinion, the last and perhaps most anticipated ruling of the court's current term, delivered a bold and unmistakable endorsement of the individual right to own guns. At the same time, it raised as many questions as it answered about the ability of government to restrict gun ownership to promote public safety, a point made in detailed rebuttals from the liberals on the court, both from the bench and in two lengthy dissents.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the decision "threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States," and he called that a "formidable and potentially dangerous" mission for the courts to undertake. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As if to underscore the point, D.C. officials, who expressed disappointment with the ruling, vowed to replace the now-voided gun ban with strict handgun regulations, raising the possibility of further litigation.

Robert Levy, a libertarian lawyer who had developed the strategy for challenging the D.C. law and recruited security guard Dick Heller and others as plaintiffs, said the court's ruling should be clear: "The District may not attempt to solve its crime problems by violating the rights of law-abiding citizens."

The Bush administration had asked the court to recognize the individual right, and Scalia's broad, history-filled opinion went further. But the administration wanted the case sent back to a lower court for a fuller hearing on whether the D.C. law violated such a right.

Still, President Bush seemed pleased with the result. "As a longstanding advocate of the rights of gun owners in America, I applaud the Supreme Court's historic decision today confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: The Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear firearms," he said in a statement.

The reaction from the presidential campaign trail was supportive, if a bit more so on one side than the other.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company