In a historic ruling yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right for individuals to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. It was the first major high court ruling on the Second Amendment.
The 5-4 decision came in a closely watched challenge to a 32-year-old Washington law that prohibited residents from keeping any kind of handgun or shotguns and rifles without trigger locks in their homes - the toughest gun law in the nation.
Although the high court's decision will have no immediate impact on gun laws beyond the district's borders - including state gun control laws like those in Maryland - constitutional scholars and advocates on both sides of the gun debate predicted a flood of litigation testing first whether the Second Amendment protection should be applied to state statutes, and then, in a second wave, whether specific state and local gun laws infringe upon an individual's right to bear arms.
"It's a good day for D.C. and a good day, I think, for the country," said Robert A. Levy, a multimillionaire and senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute who bankrolled the case and recruited plaintiffs to sue the district over the handgun ban.
"I think the city will be a safer place because of this," he added. "Despite all the talk from government officials saying this makes life in the district riskier, I think, quite to the contrary ... it will give citizens the right and ability to defend themselves. Right now, all we have is criminals who think they have carte blanche to do whatever they want."
The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, made clear that the ruling does not endanger long-standing laws that restrict the carrying of concealed weapons, that regulate gun sales, that prohibit unusually dangerous firearms and that ban the possession of guns by felons and the mentally disabled and in certain locations, such as schools and government buildings.
"There is much that is reassuring about the majority opinion because the court made it crystal clear that reasonable gun restrictions, enacted to promote public safety that are not as restrictive as the D.C. laws, would not raise these constitutional issues," said Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This decision gives the constitutional green light to a wide range of life-saving gun laws."
In Maryland, a patchwork of gun laws regulates the sale, possession and use of firearms within the state, from restricting the ease with which individuals can purchase firearms to requiring every handgun to be sold with a child-safety lock. In addition, state law preempts local governments' ability to regulate the possession, sale, manufacture, transportation and carrying of firearms within Maryland cities and counties.
Although the ruling could prompt legal challenges to, for example, Maryland's trigger lock requirement, Henigan, of the Brady Center, said those lawsuits would likely fail. The high court's opinion specifically addresses the issue, saying that the ruling does not "suggest the invalidity of laws regulating the storage of firearms to prevent accidents."
The case revolved around the curiously phrased and oddly punctuated 27 words of the Second Amendment: "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."
Gun-rights advocates have long argued that the constitutional amendment guarantees an individual's right to own firearms. But gun-control proponents - as well as nearly every court that weighed a Second Amendment challenge before this one - interpreted the wording to grant only a collective right to bear arms as part of a state-organized military force.
Answering the 217-year-old constitutional question, Scalia wrote, "Putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."
Signing on to the majority opinion were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who attended Howard University during the 1970s, when rising violence led the district to enact the handgun ban, expressed frustration with the high court's decision.
"As one who lives in the inner city of Baltimore and who has actually witnessed young people from time to time with guns in their belts or bulging from their jeans, the decision is disappointing," said the attorney, a Baltimore Democrat. Noting the closeness of the decision, he added, "If we had one more person on that court who perhaps had more of a sensitivity to what is happening in urban areas ... perhaps the decision would have been different."
At an event in West Baltimore, Mayor Sheila Dixon expressed similar disappointment with the ruling but said that it wouldn't halt the city's efforts to close federal loopholes that allow the sale of guns to criminals.
"The bottom line is people have the right to bear arms legally, but it's the illegal guns that are killing people on the street," she said.
Forty miles south, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty told reporters at a news conference that more handguns in the district would only lead to more handgun violence.
"You've heard a lot of big-city mayors around the country talk about the enormous amount of guns in those big cities. That's true here in Washington, D.C., as well," he said. "In the same way that illegal handguns move through the black market, legal handguns will also move through the black market. And in that way, they will end up in the hands of criminals who will use them for the types of crime that happens still too much in big cities like Washington, D.C."
Fenty gave the local police department 21 days to draft procedures for district residents to register handguns - including, without penalty, those that they possessed illegally during the ban. He also said that he would work with the D.C. Council to prepare emergency legislation to address the safe storage of shotguns and rifles, since the high court also struck down the provision that such guns be disassembled or disabled with a trigger lock.
Scalia expressed sympathy with the problems of urban violence. But, he wrote, cities have other tools for combating gun problems. "It is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct," he concluded.
The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, was filed in 2003 by Dick Heller, a private security guard who carries a revolver on the job at federal facilities in Washington.
Living across the street from a crime-ridden public housing project in Southeast Washington where the top drug dealer marked the close of business by emptying his 9 mm pistol into the air, he wanted to keep a gun at home for protection. But the district's handgun ban - passed in 1976 in response to rising concern over increasing gun violence in the nation's capital - prevented him from doing so.
Yesterday, Heller went to the Supreme Court to await the justices' ruling - just as he, his wife, the lawyers in the case and others had done twice before this week.
"When we heard Justice Scalia was reading the case, we knew it was going to be good right there," said Dane vonBreichenruchardt, a constitutional activist and longtime friend of Heller's. After hearing the summaries of Scalia's opinion and the dissent, the group enjoyed a celebratory lunch on Capitol Hill.
Then Heller went to work, where the officer going off duty handed him his revolver and Heller slipped it into his own holster. It's something he hopes he won't have to do for much longer after the district sets up its handgun registration procedures and he can take his work-issued firearm home with him and bring his personal .22-caliber pistol home from a friend's house in Virginia.
"We could have, but for one vote, lost this civil liberty," the 66-year-old said. "People need to realize that our freedoms are being encroached upon. In a truly free country, you don't need permission."
Sun reporters Stephen Kiehl and Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.