An opening for gun control after Colorado shooting and charges on James Holmes

Even as Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes faces 24 murder charges, a conservative Supreme Court justice speaks out on gun control and legal limits on gun rights.

Jeff Kandyba/AP Photo
In this courtroom sketch, suspect James Holmes, third from right, sits in court July 30 during his arraignment where he was formally charged with 24 counts of murder and 116 counts of attempted murder in the shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on July 20.

In the 11 days since the Colorado shooting, in which James Holmes allegedly killed 12 people during a screening of the film “The Dark Knight Rises,” at least one national leader has spoken out definitively about what legislators can do about gun control.

Oddly enough it was Justice Antonin Scalia, the most outspoken conservative on the US Supreme Court and a notable defender of the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear” arms.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Justice Scalia offered a useful reminder that the high court’s 2010 decision on the Second Amendment does not preclude all government restrictions on guns.

“My starting point and ending point probably will be what limitations are within the understood limitations [of what 18th-century America] had at the time,” Scalia said.

Speaking from an “originalist” view on what the Constitution meant to the Founding Fathers, he added: “They had some limitation on the nature of arms that could be borne. So, we’ll see what those limitations are as applied to modern weapons.”

He cited the example in early America of “locational limitations” on where weapons could be carried as well as laws against frightening weapons, such as a “head ax.”

“It will have to be decided in future cases,” Scalia said.

His comments are a legal opening for elected leaders to act even as the nation grieves over yet another mass killing. They can certainly go beyond what President Obama and Mitt Romney have said since the shooting.

While Mr. Obama did call for restricting gun access to criminals and the mentally unbalanced, he didn’t speak of any general restrictions. Nor has he taken the easy steps that a president can do without action by Congress, such as reducing imports of assault weapons by tightening up the definition of “sporting purposes” or by toughening rules on licensed gun sellers.

Both he and Mr. Romney are also conspicuously silent about their past support for the federal ban on assault weapons – now elapsed – or what Scalia might call “modern weapons” and which may not be protected by the Second Amendment.

This general silence by politicians since the July 20 shooting does not reflect popular opinion – even among members of the National Rifle Association – for new rules on gun access. The NRA, using its threatening influence over candidates, has all but shut down a national debate on gun control policy.

Could new gun laws have prevented the Colorado shooting? Mr. Holmes had legally obtained an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, two Glock semiautomatic pistols, and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Tighter gun laws might have at least forced him to use the black market, triggering law enforcement to his gun-buying activities.

Even conservatives such as Scalia now realize that the issue of guns in America needs a reasonable and open debate. Shutting down the discussion, especially after one more massacre, only creates a deafening – and deadly – silence.

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