Supreme Court returns to firearms fray

Updated 6h 20m ago
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By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court announced Wednesday it will return to the controversy over individual gun rights by hearing an appeal from a group of firearms owners in Chicago.
They are challenging a lower appeals court ruling that said the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to guns only in the face of federal regulation, not against state and municipal restrictions.

Included among 10 new disputes the justices added to their calendar Wednesday for the upcoming 2009-10 term, which begins next Monday, the guns case brings the court back to a sensational topic that pits uniquely American notions of frontier liberty against contemporary worries over urban violence.

When the justices heard a case on the subject in March 2008, people began lining up in front of the court's columned building two days early for a seat.

The new dispute began in Chicago, which has a handgun ban similar to a Washington, D.C., ordinance that the Supreme Court struck down in June 2008 as a violation of the Second Amendment. In the 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court for the first time declared an individual right to firearms for self-defense and rejected a prevailing lower court view that the Second Amendment applied only to state "militia," such as National Guard units.

But the 5-4 decision left open a crucial question that could have more practical consequences for gun owners and for the states that would regulate them: Does the Second Amendment apply to the states and localities as it does to federal jurisdiction of Washington, D.C.?

Because the Supreme Court has so rarely taken up Second Amendment cases, the amendment's coverage in the states has never been fully determined — unlike the breadth of many of the other of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

Thirty-four states had asked the Supreme Court to take up the gun advocates' appeals and a separate one filed by the National Rifle Association against Chicago. (The justices did not act on that petition Wednesday.)

Led by Texas state lawyers, 33 of the 34 states said in a joint filing, "Without this court's review (of the Chicago cases), millions of Americans may be deprived of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms." California separately urged the court to take the Chicago disputes.

"I have every confidence the Supreme Court will say that it is a freedom to be enjoyed by the entire American people not just those in federal enclaves," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA.

"There's no question that if the court applies the Second Amendment to the states that will encourage more challenges to gun laws," said Dennis Henigan, a vice president at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "But when the dust clears, it is quite likely this decision will leave intact virtually all the state laws out there."

Henigan noted that the cases that have made it to the Supreme Court in recent terms have involved outright, but rare, bans and that lower courts so far have not been skeptical of registration and other less stringent firearms regulation.

Chicago adopted its handgun ban in 1982, city officials told the high court, because of a rise in firearms-related deaths and because officials believed handguns were playing "a major role in the commission of homicide, aggravated assaults and armed robbery."

The legal dispute specifically tests whether the Second Amendment — written more than two centuries ago to cover only the federal government — may be extended to the states, as the First Amendment and many other protections of the Bill of Rights have been through 20th Century court rulings.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, said the Second Amendment does not apply to the states. The appeals court stressed that the historical view of the Supreme Court was the amendment restricted the powers of the federal government.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit took the opposite view in a decision earlier this year.

A third U.S. appeals court, the New York-based 2nd Circuit, entered the controversy when it ruled in January that the Second Amendment does not cover the states.

Then-Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor joined the opinion rejecting a challenge to a New York ban on certain weapons used in martial arts. That decision in Maloney v. Cuomo provoked some gun-rights groups to protest Sotomayor's nomination. The NRA and other gun-rights advocates urged senators to vote against Sotomayor because of the Maloney v. Cuomo ruling.

Lawyer Alan Gura, who represented the challengers to the Washington, D.C., ordinance two years ago, represents the Chicago gun owners. Gura stressed in his petitions that lower courts disagree about the extent of individuals' right to have guns.

The case, McDonald v. City of Chicago, is likely to be scheduled for January. A decision would come before the end of the term in late June 2010. ... guns_N.htm