Local, state gun-control laws at risk
The Supreme Court on Monday effectively struck down Chicago's strict firearm ban in a landmark decision that casts state and local gun laws...
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Seattle Times news services
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday effectively struck down Chicago's strict firearm ban in a landmark decision that casts state and local gun laws into question.
By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that Chicago's long-standing gun ban violated an individual's right to own firearms, enshrined in the Second Amendment. The ruling marks the first time the court has determined that the Constitution restricts state and municipal gun-control powers.
"Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, adding that "individual self-defense is the central component of the Second Amendment right."
Alito was part of the same majority that struck down the gun ban in Washington, D.C., in 2008. The landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision was the first time the court ruled that the Second Amendment's right to bear arms extends to individuals, not just formal militias. In both cases, Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
A lower court still must invalidate the Chicago law, a step the Supreme Court ruling makes all but certain.
Writing in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer — joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — noted that handguns cause an estimated 60,000 deaths and injuries each year. Breyer cautioned that the ruling will hinder state and local efforts to control the carnage.
"Unlike other forms of substantive liberty," Breyer warned, "the carrying of arms for that purpose often puts others' lives at risk."
Outside the court, Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA), said it was a "monumental day."
In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley said he was disappointed because the ruling made the city's handgun ban "unenforceable."
"Across the country, cities are struggling with how to address this issue," Daley said. "Common sense tells you we need fewer guns on the street, not more guns." Alito's 45-page majority opinion, on the last day of the Supreme Court's 2009-10 term, built directly on the earlier D.C. decision and emphasized throughout the traditional deference that courts and legislatures have paid to gun ownership.
"King George III's attempt to disarm the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms," Alito said.
He added that for the authors of the Bill of Rights, which includes the Second Amendment, "the right to keep and bear arms was considered no less fundamental."
Alito, as Scalia did in the D.C. gun case, noted that "the right is not unlimited." The decision shed little light on what kinds of state and local gun laws might survive legal challenges to come. Alito, however, said the court did not mean to cast doubt on laws prohibiting possession of guns by felons and people who suffer from mental illness, laws forbidding carrying guns in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws regulating commercial sale of firearms.
Still, the ruling could open courthouse doors nationwide for gun-rights advocates to challenge other restrictions. For example, officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco rarely give permits for residents to carry a concealed weapon in public, and gun-rights advocates say they want to challenge those restrictions.
Washington state law restricts certain individuals from owning or carrying a firearm based on certain criminal histories, young age and mental-health history.
In Seattle, the Parks and Recreation Department has been in legal limbo since the introduction of the city's gun ban in parks in October 2009. A state court since has ruled that the ban violates state law, but a federal court ruled the city's policy was within the state's constitution. Both cases are on appeal.
Robert Scales, senior policy analyst for the Seattle City Attorney's Office, said it might be "too early to tell" whether the high court's ruling will affect Seattle's parks restriction.
The Second Amendment says "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
The first 10 constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights cover only the federal government. The 14th Amendment, added after the Civil War, also declares that "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Over time, the Supreme Court has determined that most of the Bill of Rights' provisions apply to the states as well as the federal government as a result of the 14th Amendment.
The decision Monday extended this reasoning to gun ownership.
"It is clear that the framers and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty," Alito wrote.
The challenge in the case, called McDonald v. City of Chicago, culminated a years-long litigation campaign by gun-rights groups, which have used carefully selected sympathetic plaintiffs to dispute the nation's strictest laws. The lead plaintiff for the Chicago case was Otis McDonald, a community activist in his late 70s who lives in a high-crime neighborhood.
"His efforts to improve the neighborhood have subjected him to violent threats from drug dealers," Alito said.
Chicago's ordinance, like the one in Washington, D.C., effectively bans the possession of handguns by most city residents. It bars firearms possession unless an individual holds a valid license, and those licenses haven't been issued in many years.
"The reasons that motivated the framers to protect the ability of militiamen to keep muskets available for military use when our nation was in its infancy, or that motivated the Reconstruction Congress to extend full citizenship to freedmen in the wake of the Civil War, have only a limited bearing on the question that confronts the homeowner in a crime-infested metropolis today," Stevens wrote in his final dissent before retiring.
Stevens' last day: The hourlong session ended with a tribute to John Paul Stevens on his last day. He is retiring after more than 34 years on the court.
"We will miss your wisdom, your perceptive insights and vast life experience, your unaffected decency and resolute commitment to justice," Chief Justice John Roberts told him.
Stevens said he had been honored to serve on the court for so many years.
"If I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job," he said.
Ginsburg widowed: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the court for the final day of this term, one day after her husband, Martin Ginsburg, died of cancer.
Roberts began the court's day with a tribute to him.
"He was a dear friend to everyone at the court," he said.
Information from The New York Times, Bloomberg News and the Tribune Washington bureau is included in this report. Seattle Times staff reporter Lauren C. Williams also contributed.
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