Justices reject handgun bans

WASHINGTON -- A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Constitution protects an individual's right to bear arms, while leaving room for governments to regulate gunownership.

WASHINGTON -- A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Constitution protects an individual's right to bear arms, while leaving room for governments to regulate gunownership.

By 5-4, the court struck down the District of Columbia's strict handgun ban as an infringement on fundamental rights. The ruling marks the first time in the nation's history that the Second Amendment was interpreted to guarantee an individual's right to own a gun for self-defense, foreshadowing new challenges to local, state and federal gun laws.

"There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

The court cautioned, however, that some gun laws will remain intact.

"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," Scalia wrote. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."


"I'm very happy that now I'm able to defend myself and my household in my own home," said Richard Heller, the Washington, D.C., resident who challenged the gun ban.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined the majority. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

"The court's announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms upsets [previous] understandings, but leaves for future cases the formidable task of defining the scope of permissible regulations," Stevens wrote.

The Second Amendment, with all its archaic capitalizations, 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."

Following an excruciatingly detailed historical examination, the court's majority ruling repudiates the long-held notion that the right to bear arms is strictly linked to militia service. Instead, the court concluded that it's an individual right untethered to military or government necessity. This will make it easier for gun rights advocates to resist new regulations and overturn existing laws.

Scalia stressed that the Second Amendment's much-disputed language was designed to protect a "pre-existing right," and he characterized the notion of a militia as simply being "all able-bodied men" rather than an organized unit. Firearms, he added, might sometimes be needed to protect the citizens from the government itself.

The District of Columbia essentially has prohibited handgun ownership since 1976 except by retired district police officers. Rifles may be owned, but they must be stored disassembled or with trigger locks.


Heller, 66, a one-time security officer, was one of six plaintiffs originally recruited to challenge the law, and the only one whom lower court judges deemed to have the legal standing necessary to proceed.

The court left in place one aspect of Washington's regulations of guns because Heller did not contest the licensing requirement at the Supreme Court. The justices had no occasion to rule on it.

The licensing issue is among the most important to be answered in the future. So is the question of whether the Second Amendment even applies to state and local governments, or only guarantees rights against unreasonable federal interference.

After Thursday's decision, the National Rifle Association announced plans to file lawsuits against Chicago and San Francisco over their gun laws.

Chicago's ban on private handgun ownership most closely mirrors the Washington law that was struck down. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said the court's ruling was "a very frightening decision" and predicted greater violence if his city's law was overturned.

Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, predicted that the ruling could open the door to challenges of regulations already adopted by state and local governments nationwide.

"Now it's going to be open season on gun regulations," he said. "I think we're going to see a cottage industry of lawsuits against gun regulations, even regulations that in the end are going to be upheld."

The Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report.

What To Read Next
Get Local