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Legal Matters: Any new gun laws are sure to face challenges

I have no predictions on what courts will do with the legal challenges that are almost certain to follow any new gun control laws. But there are some clues in what the Supreme Court has ruled about restrictions or bans on gun ownership in the past.

Gun control is on the minds of ordinary citizens, legislators, governors and President Obama after the shooting massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. The debate, and new legislative initiatives, bring the Second Amendment to the Constitution front and center.

The odds are good that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually be deciding whether new state or federal gun control laws are constitutional.

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."

Americans have been arguing since 1789 about issues such as whether the founding fathers meant to limit gun ownership by including the "militia" clause and what constitutes an infringement on the right to bear arms.

The Supreme Court's role has been to interpret whether various federal, state and local government actions pass constitutional muster.

Over two centuries, the court has ruled: states can regulate firearms; a federal law prohibiting transport of unregistered weapons across state lines is constitutional; a Washington, D.C., ban on handguns violated the Second Amendment; and states and municipalities cannot ban possession of handguns in the home.

In the most recent ruling, the court said in 2010 that the Second Amendment applies to states and municipalities, and laws banning handgun possession violate it. The case arose after Chicago adopted a ban on nearly all handgun possession by private citizens. Otis McDonald, a Chicago resident, wanted a handgun. He sued, arguing that the city violated his rights and that the Second Amendment applies to state action as well as federal action. The National Rifle Association sued separately.

The Supreme Court held that the amendment confers an individual right to possess a firearm.

The Chicago ruling was similar to the invalidation of the Washington, D.C., ordinance two years earlier, but it settled one other question: Since Washington, D.C., is not a state, did the court mean neither the District of Columbia nor the states could ban guns? Yes, indeed.

Do the Washington and Chicago case rulings mean any new gun control efforts are doomed? It depends.

In 1939, the Supreme Court used the militia clause in the case of a man indicted for transporting an unregistered sawed-off shotgun across state lines in violation of the National Firearms Act. He argued that the law violated the Second Amendment. The court found no evidence that possessing a sawed-off shotgun, "has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia," and ruled the constitution did not guarantee the right to own such a gun.

In an 1875 case, the court ruled that the Second Amendment does not bar state regulation of firearms.

When does regulation cross the line into unconstitutional infringement? That may be a question for the Supreme Court if new gun control laws are adopted and challenged.

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