By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008; 1:06 PM
The Supreme Court, splitting along ideological lines, today declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own guns for self-defense, striking down the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership as unconstitutional.
The 5 to 4 decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia represented a monumental change in federal jurisprudence and went beyond what the Bush administration had counseled. It said that the government may impose some restrictions on gun ownership, but that the District's strictest-in-the-nation ban went too far under any interpretation.
Scalia wrote that the Constitution leaves the District a number of options for combating the problem of handgun violence, "including some measures regulating handguns."
"But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table," he continued. "These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home."
The court also held unconstitutional the requirement that shotguns and rifles be kept disassembled or unloaded or outfitted with a trigger lock. The court called it a "prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."
Scalia was joined by the most consistently conservative justices -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Justice John Paul Stevens spoke from the bench to denounce the decision, which he said violated the court's precedent that the Second Amendment refers to a right to bear arms only for military purposes.
He spoke dismissively of the court's "newly discovered right" and said decisions about gun control should be made by legislatures.
"This court should stay out of that political thicket," he said. Stevens was joined in dissent by the court's most consistent liberals: David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
In announcing the opinion, Scalia specifically mentioned that some restrictions on owning and carrying a gun are valid, such as denying the sale to felons or the mentally ill, or restricting the possession of guns in "sensitive places," such as schools.
But he acknowledged that the majority opinion was not setting standards that might be easily apparent to governments deciding how to restrict gun rights. As a result, Scalia said the ruling will probably result in more litigation.
"Since this case represents this court's first in-depth examination of the Second Amendment, one should not expect it to clarify the entire field," Scalia wrote. "And there will be time enough to expound upon the historical justifications for the exceptions we have mentioned if and when those exceptions come before us."
President Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, said in a statement that "the President strongly agrees with the Supreme Court's historic decision today that the Second Amendment protects the individual right of Americans to keep and bear arms. This has been the Administration's long-held view. The President is also pleased that the Court concluded that the DC firearm laws violate that right."
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee quickly put out a statement endorsing the decision, calling it a "landmark victory" for Second Amendment rights. "Today's ruling . . . makes clear that other municipalities like Chicago that have banned handguns have infringed on the constitutional rights of American citizens
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democrats' all but certain nominee, also issued a statement saying that "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures.
"The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view, and while it ruled that the D.C. gun ban went too far, Justice Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe."
In a statement on its web site, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre called the decision "a great moment in American history. It vindicates individual Americans all over this country who have always known that this is their freedom worth protecting."
Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement that "our fight to enact sensible gun laws will be undiminished by the Supreme Court's decision in the Heller case. While we disagree with the Supreme Court's ruling, which strips the citizens of the District of Columbia of a law they strongly support, the decision clearly suggests that other gun laws are entirely consistent with the Constitution.
The lawyers challenging the District's 32-year-old law were able to persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year to do what no other federal appeals court had ever done: strike down a local gun-control ordinance on Second Amendment grounds.
The amendment says that "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," and all but one of the circuits that had considered the issue previously had interpreted it as providing a gun-ownership right related only to military service.
But Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman, a conservative icon, wrote for a 2 to 1 panel that the amendment provides an individual right just as other provisions of the Bill of Rights do. And because handguns fall under the definition of "arms," he wrote, the District may not ban them.
To some the decision was not surprising. Even a small but growing group of liberal constitutional scholars -- "against my political instincts," in the words of Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe -- have endorsed the individual-right view.
The District had received an unlikely lifeline from the Bush administration, which told the court that the amendment provides an individual right but that the appeals court erred in deciding that the District's ban was automatically unconstitutional.
"If adopted by this court," wrote Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, who earlier this month left his post, "such an analysis could cast doubt on the constitutionality of existing federal legislation prohibiting the possession of certain firearms, including machineguns."
The court's last examination of the amendment was in 1939, when it ruled in U.S. v. Miller that a sawed-off shotgun transported across state lines by a bootlegger was not what the amendment's authors had in mind when they were protecting arms needed for military service.