US Supreme Court Rules Americans Have Right to Own Guns

26 June 2008

For the first time in history, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued adefinitive ruling on the right of Americans to own guns. Afive-to-four majority of the court ruled that individual citizens havethe right to own firearms, and in the process it struck down a32-year-old ban on handguns in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the high court'slandmark ruling from Washington.

Writing for the five-membercourt majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Second Amendment to theU.S. Constitution does protect the rights of individuals to ownfirearms for personal use.

Legal scholars have long debatedwhether the Second Amendment guaranteed the right of individuals topossess firearms, or if it merely applied to state militias.

AttorneyAlan Gura says the high court's historic ruling makes it clear thatindividuals do have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Gurarepresented a Washington, D.C. resident who wanted the city's 32-year-old ban on handguns struck down.

"People do have an individualright to keep and bear arms, that is very important to remember. Thatmeans that the government cannot ban handguns, it cannot regulate gunsout of existence. We feel today is a fantastic day for liberty onceagain," Gura said.

Gura represented security guard Dick Heller. Heller lives in a high-crime section of Washington and challenged thecity's handgun ban so he could defend himself. 

"I am very pleased tohave been able to take this case, with help from my attorneys, all theway to the highest court in the land. And I am very happy that now Iam able to defend myself and my household in my own home," Heller said.

Amongthose welcoming the high court's decision was President Bush. TheWhite House issued a statement saying the president strongly agreeswith the court's majority opinion.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain also praised the decision as a landmark victory for freedom in the United States.

Democraticcandidate Barack Obama issued a statement that said the court decisionwill provide guidance to local communities trying to balance the rightsof gun owners with the need to protect citizens in high crime areas ofthe country.

The four Supreme Court justices in the minority whowanted to uphold the handgun ban argued that striking down theWashington, D.C. law would open up other gun control statutes toconstitutional challenges.

Gun control advocates were disappointed but not surprised by the Supreme Court ruling.

'Weare obviously disappointed and disagree with the majority opinion. This takes off the idea that you can have a near total ban on guns,especially guns for self-defense,' said Paul Helmke, president of theBrady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence.

But Helmke noted that inhis majority opinion, Justice Scalia said that although the courtrecognizes an individual right to bear arms, that right is notunlimited. 

"It is clear that what the court did today was that theylimited the extremes. They said that you can no longer have near totalprohibitions on guns, but they also said you can have reasonablerestrictions on guns," he said.

In his opinion, Scalia said theruling should not be used to cast doubt on existing gun control lawsthat keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentallyill, and prevent weapons from being carried into schools and governmentbuildings.

Gura says Thursday's Supreme Court decision will havefar-reaching legal ramifications for government attempts to enact newgun control measures. 

"We are not going to see the end of instantbackground checks. We are not going to see the end of the ban onfelons or lunatics having guns. But, when the government regulatesguns, it has to remember that it is potentially stepping on animportant individual right and it is going to be made to respect thatright," he said

The high court last took up the issue of theSecond Amendment and gun ownership in 1939, but legal scholars say thecourt at that time did not directly settle the question of whetherindividual citizens have a right to bear arms.