Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Court case will test extent of gun rights

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court raised the stakes for its new term and for gun owners nationwide by agreeing Wednesday to hear an appeal from firearms owners in Chicago. The question in the case goes to the heart of the Second Amendment and could become a major test of the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts.

HIGH COURT: Sotomayor's impact is on trial

The gun owners are challenging an appeals court ruling that the Second Amendment's guarantee of an individual right to guns applies only to federal law, not to state and local regulations.

The dispute returns the court to a sensational topic that pits American frontier tradition against contemporary worries over urban violence. When the court heard a case on the subject in March 2008, people began lining up in front of its columned building two days early for a seat.

The new case — which the justices will probably hear in January and rule on by July — centers on a Chicago handgun ban similar to a Washington law the Supreme Court struck down in June 2008 as a violation of the Second Amendment. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the 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.

Yet the 5-4 decision left open a key question that could have more practical consequences for gun owners and states: Does the Second Amendment apply to the states and localities as it does to the federal enclave of Washington? Because the Supreme Court has so rarely taken up Second Amendment cases, the amendment's scope has never been fully determined — unlike most of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.

"Without this court's review, millions of Americans may be deprived of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms," 33 states led by Texas lawyers said in a joint filing asking the court to hear the gun owners' appeal. California also urged the court to intervene in the case.

The National Rifle Association also had challenged the Chicago ordinance, but the court did not accept its appeal Wednesday. "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," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said.

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

Chicago adopted its handgun ban in 1982, city officials said in a court brief, because of a rise in firearms-related deaths and the city's belief that handguns had "a major role" in murders. City gun registration rules are also part of the new case.

Appeals courts are divided on the Second Amendment's reach. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, said it does not apply to the states. Yet a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled the opposite this year.

A third appeals court, the New York-based 2nd Circuit, ruled that the Second Amendment does not cover state regulation. Then-Appeals Court judge Sonia Sotomayor joined the opinion rejecting a challenge to a New York ban on certain martial arts weapons. That decision in January provoked the NRA to urge senators to vote against her Supreme Court nomination in the summer.



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