Historic case may decide U.S. gun rights
Hearings on the constitutionality of a D.C. gun ban begin Tuesday. The Supreme Court is looking at the Second Amendment for the first time since 1939.
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Some legal scholars believe the amendment protects a right to keep and bear only those firearms that are necessary for ongoing service in a state militia. Other equally distinguished scholars hold the view that the amendment guarantees individual Americans the right to possess and use firearms, even when the guns are not related to service in a militia.
The US Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Tuesday in a potential landmark case that could settle the question once and for all.
The high court last addressed the issue almost 70 years ago in a case called US v. Miller. But that decision left the debate unresolved.
The Supreme Court's jurisprudence has been marked by a surprising lack of clear and decisive action on the Second Amendment. As a result, many of the legal briefs in the current case instead of emphasizing prior decisions of the high court offer competing versions of American history, focusing on the debates, writings, and experiences of the nation's founding era.
An unprecedented case
It presents what Georgetown University Law Center Professor Randy Barnett calls a "clean case."
"There is really no precedent standing in the way of the court enforcing the original meaning of this provision," Professor Barnett told reporters recently. "That's what makes this a historic case. That's what makes it a case that none of us … have probably witnessed in our lifetime and may never witness again."
But that's also what makes it unpredictable, according to other analysts.
The justices must decide what the authors of the Second Amendment meant when they wrote and approved these words: "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."
In addition to settling a historic debate, how the high court reads those words will hold important implications for the constitutionality of gun control measures across the US. It could also inject the fiery issue of guns into the 2008 campaigns for president and Congress.
The debate over gun rights and gun-control exists at a major fault line in American political culture. One side views guns as a threat to public safety; the other views them as a protection of personal safety and national liberty.
Dick Anthony Heller, a special police officer at the Federal Judicial Center, wanted to keep a handgun in his Washington home for self-defense. But the city government refused to issue him a permit, citing the city's stringent gun laws.