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An individual right to bear arms – within reason

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 29, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
June 29, 2010 5:10 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s new ruling on the Second Amendment won’t likely shatter this state’s gun regulations.

The decision closely tracks Washington’s equivalent of the Second Amendment. “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired,” says the state constitution.

That “individual citizen” idea has triggered all the furor over the Second Amendment.

Because the amendment also mentions “a well-regulated militia,” opponents of an individual right have argued that the framers intended to guarantee a collective privilege of bearing arms – a privilege that withered away with the old-time militias or perhaps still survives in the hands of the modern National Guard.

In recent years, that argument has taken a beating from historians and respected constitutional scholars.

State charters adopted in the decades after the Bill of Rights was ratified specified that the right was individual in nature. In the rest of the Bill of Rights, the word “people” means individuals. It’s hard to turn around and argue that “people” excludes individuals in the Second Amendment.

The militia-only theory took its biggest hit two years ago when the court’s conservative majority struck down a sweeping ban on gun possession – even within homes – in Washington, D.C. But that ruling applied only to the federal government. Monday’s ruling, in a Chicago case, broadens the individual right to all the states and all local jurisdictions.

Chicago and the capital made terrible backdrops for those who wanted to ban ownership of handguns. In both cities, the rate of gun deaths increased after they enacted their bans. That proves nothing in particular, but it certainly doesn’t bolster the public safety case for such laws.

The new court decision is a whopping victory for gun-rights advocates, who had the advantage of having early American history in their corner.

But like all people with a favorite constitutional right, the Second Amendment crowd has its share of absolutists. These include, for example, folks who believe the amendment guarantees them machine guns, or a right to carry guns on school grounds, or a right to buy and sell guns and ammunition without oversight and restrictions.

The U.S. Supreme Court offers them little comfort. In 2008 and again this week, the majority specified that the right to keep and bear arms is not “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

The justices explicitly said that these rulings won’t forbid governments from common sense gun regulations, such as barring gun ownership by criminals and the mentally ill.

It may be that the decisions won’t make much difference on the ground – except in jurisdictions that get downright fanatical about denying firearms to peaceful citizens.

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