US Supreme Court sharply divided on limiting gun rights

March 24th, 2008 - 10:38 am ICT by admin  

By Chris Cermak
Washington, March 24 (DPA) It was a lively debate over a single sentence in the US Constitution, but a landmark Supreme Court case could have a huge impact on gun control legislation across the US. The US has some of the most liberal gun legislation in the Western world. Most states and cities allow citizens to own weapons, including handguns, and more than one in four people keep a gun at home.

The nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, is one of only two cities that has banned the possession of handguns outright, in a bid to reduce the city’s spiralling violent crime rate.

The Supreme Court heard a case Tuesday brought by a resident who wants that ban overturned, and justices appeared sharply divided over whether to strike down the 1976 Washington law.

Gun control has long been one of the most emotional and intense topics on the US political scene. Hundreds of people lined up outside the courthouse, some overnight for a chance to witness the historic hearing.

It has been nearly 70 years since the nine-member Supreme Court considered rights to gun ownership in the US, and never has it explicitly ruled on whether the Constitution guarantees all individuals the right to own and carry weapons for private use.

Gun owners argue they have the right to protect themselves from criminals, who will find a way to get guns regardless of the law, and that handguns are the best means of self-defence.

They point to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1791, which allowed states to form their own militias to defend themselves against federal government tyranny and internal rebellions.

Lawyers and justices spent the better part on one-and-a-half-hours scrutinising from all angles the one sentence that makes up the Second Amendment:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The court’s usually guarded judges seemed eager to indicate their opinions on the basic right to own guns and just how far restrictions on firearms should be taken, regularly interrupting the lawyers and at times interrupting each other.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a moderate judge in the court, said he believed the amendment did grant individuals - not just militia members - the right to keep weapons, in an unusually clear statement of his views.

“In my view, it supplemented by saying there’s a general right to bear arms,” he said of the amendment.

But gun control advocates denied that the court was leaning in favour of allowing guns to remain in private hands.

“After this argument it is still hard to judge how they will decide - they are struggling very hard evaluating whether the right to carry guns is an individual right or not,” said Brain Siebel, senior lawyer of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Tuesday’s oral argument was part historical, part legal, and at times a simple lesson in grammar. The court discussed the role and view of militias in early American society, and considered in intricate detail whether the nation’s founders had made a distinction between carrying a gun for military purposes and keeping one at home.

“It is one right to ‘keep and bear,’ not two rights to ‘keep’ and ‘bear’,” said Justice John Paul Stevens said, suggesting the amendment was designed only for militia members.

But even if the court were to uphold every man’s right to “bear arms”, all sides seemed to agree that certain restrictions on that right will always be necessary.

An individual right “is not being infringed if reasonable restrictions are placed upon it”, Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the court should take into account the Washington’s high crime rate in deciding whether to strike down the law.

“All the more reason to allow the homeowner to have a handgun,” Justice Antonin Scalia retorted.

In the end, which way the court rules will likely come down to just what the court considers to be a “reasonable” restriction on the private possession of weapons.

“Does (the Second Amendment) make it unreasonable for a city with a very high crime rate to say ‘no handguns here’?” asked Justice Breyer.

A decision on that question is not expected until June.

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