It's often hard to know or predict how the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will vote on critical cases, but anyone concerned about the level of gun violence in America has to hope that a majority will uphold the reasonable restrictions on gun ownership that have long been in effect in Washington, D.C. Those restrictions - and a serious challenge to them - were the subject of a spirited debate before the court yesterday, with pointed questions directed to both sides.
Under the 1976 law at the heart of the case, most Washington residents are prohibited from owning a handgun, unless they had a registered handgun before the law took effect. The ban does not apply to rifles or shotguns. Washington officials make a strong case that restricting handguns in a major city makes sense, because handguns are overwhelmingly the weapons of choice in crimes involving guns. It may be easy for Baltimore, which is also in a continuous struggle to deal with guns and gun violence, to sympathize with the intent of the Washington law.
A security guard licensed to carry a gun on the job but not allowed to have one at home, where he says he fears for his safety, challenged the D.C. ban. His lawyers argue that the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees to all Americans the right to keep and carry firearms. Defenders of the law say the amendment was aimed at arming state militias.
Does the Second Amendment speak to an individual's right to have a gun, unrelated to any government military service? Is an outright ban of one type of weapon permissible? And even assuming there is an individual right to a gun, can that right be regulated, and how much leeway should the court allow the regulators? These are among the questions to be decided, and many of the justices' questions and comments throughout the argument suggest that the answers may be closely divided.
Outlawing a city's ban on handguns would unfairly strip citizens of their collective ability to make their communities safer. But however the court rules, its decision won't end the debate on gun violence in America.