WASHINGTON - A split Supreme Court ruled Monday that Chicago's strict handgun ban violated an individual's right to own firearms, enshrined in the Second Amendment, a landmark decision that casts state and local gun laws into question.
The 5-4 ruling marks the first time the court has determined that the Constitution restricts state and municipal gun-control powers.
"Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority in McDonald v. City of Chicago, adding, "Individual self-defense is the central component of the Second Amendment right."
Alito was also part of the 5-4 majority in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller that struck down a gun ban in Washington. That was the first time the court ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms extended to individuals, not just formal militias, but that decision applied only to federal laws.
A lower court must still invalidate the 1982 Chicago law, a step the Supreme Court ruling makes all but certain.
Writing in dissent Monday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer - joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor - noted that handguns cause an estimated 60,000 deaths and injuries each year. Breyer cautioned that the ruling would hinder state and local efforts to control the carnage.
"Unlike other forms of substantive liberty, the carrying of arms for that purpose often puts others' lives at risk," Breyer warned.
Alito's 45-page majority opinion, issued on the last day of the court's 2009-10 term, built directly on the Heller decision and emphasized throughout the traditional deference that courts and legislatures have paid to gun ownership. Alito was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.
"King George III's attempt to disarm the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms," Alito wrote.
He added that for the authors of the Bill of Rights, which includes the Second Amendment, "the right to keep and bear arms was considered no less fundamental."
Alito, as Scalia did in the Heller case, noted that "the right is not unlimited," but Monday's decision shed little light on what kinds of state and local gun laws might survive the next legal challenges. In general, though, the stricter the rule, the easier it may be to challenge.
"Regulatory measures such as prohibiting the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, and laws that prohibit possession of guns in sensitive locations such as schools . . . do not run afoul of the Second Amendment," suggested Steven Puiszis, a Chicago-based lawyer with the firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, added that "states and local governments will now have to proceed more carefully when enacting gun regulations."
The Second 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."
The first 10 constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights cover only the federal government. The 14th Amendment, added after the Civil War, also declares that "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Over time, the Supreme Court has determined that most of the Bill of Rights' provisions apply to the states as well as to the federal government as a result of the 14th Amendment.
Monday's decision extended this reasoning to gun ownership.
"It is clear," Alito wrote, "that the framers and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty."
The challenge in the McDonald case culminated a years-long litigation campaign by gun-rights groups, which have used carefully selected sympathetic plaintiffs to dispute the nation's strictest laws. The lead plaintiff for this case was Otis McDonald, a community activist in his late 70s who lives in a high-crime neighborhood.
"His efforts to improve the neighborhood have subjected him to violent threats from drug dealers," Alito said.
Chicago's ordinance, like the one challenged in Washington, effectively bans the possession of handguns by most city residents. It bars firearms possession unless a person holds a valid license, and those licenses haven't been issued in many years.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by Monday's ruling. He said officials were already at work rewriting the challenged ordinance to meet the court's gun-rights guarantee and to protect Chicago residents from gun violence.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said his group "will continue to work at every level to ensure that defiant city councils and cynical politicians do not transform this constitutional victory into a practical defeat through Byzantine regulations and restrictions."
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SOURCE: Associated PressEndText
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