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U.S. Supreme Court questions DC gun ban

At a court session Tuesday, majority judges seemed to support an individual's right to bear arms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Washington -

A majority of US Supreme Court justices appear poised to embrace an individual rights view of the Second Amendment. But a clear consensus did not emerge during historic oral arguments Tuesday on how precisely the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" should be enforced – and limited – by the courts.

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The justices engaged in more than 90 minutes of spirited questioning in a potential landmark case involving a legal challenge to a Washington, D.C. law banning handguns.

The case is being closely watched by gun control advocates who are concerned that should the high court strike down the DC ban and support an individual's right to keep and bear arms, it might trigger a proliferation of military-grade weapons among civilians. Some analysts suggest it could result not only in ownership of machine guns, but also of missiles and other military-grade ordinance.

Gun rights advocates are hopeful that the high court will firmly establish an individual right to arms. But they are divided over how much that right should be limited.

The case of District of Columbia v. Heller involves a security guard who is asking the courts to declare Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban an unconstitutional infringement of his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. His lawyer, Alan Gura, says the constitution protects his right to keep a handgun at home for self defense.

A lawyer for the District of Columbia, Walter Dellinger, countered that the Second Amendment protects a collective right to use only those guns needed to provide for the common defense as part of a state militia. The amendment does not protect a right to use guns for self defense at home, he said.

The Second Amendment reads: "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."

Supporters of the individual rights view of the amendment focus on the second half of the measure, while those embracing the militia-rights view stress the importance of the first clause.

Based on the questions they raised, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy support an individual rights approach to the Second Amendment. Although he did not ask any questions, Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested in the past that he supports an individual rights view.

Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter appear to be among the strongest supporters of a narrow reading that would apply the Second Amendment to only the militia service. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer fall someplace in between.

The attack on the militia view of the Second Amendment began within minutes of the start of the District of Columbia's argument. Mr. Dellinger stressed that the word "bear" in the amendment is consistent with military operations and suggests the purpose of the amendment is to protect militia arms.

He said the first clause of the amendment limits its scope to military operations aimed at safeguarding the common defense.

Chief Justice Roberts asked Dellinger why the authors of the Second Amendment specified a "right of the people," rather than simply saying the right of the state militia.

Mr. Dellinger said that the terms 'militia' and 'the people' were often interchangeable.