Supreme Court right on D.C. handgun ban

The U.S. Supreme Court got it right on the Washington, D.C., handgun ban.

The Second Amendment, which guarantees the right of the people to keep and bear arms, is weirdly written and distinctly not a model of clear communication. But its obvious intent is simple: to guarantee the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. The Washington ban was doomed from the minute it went into federal courts. The only real question was why Washington local officials chose to defend the law rather than amend it.

It's important, however, to note what the court did not do. It did not bar regulation of the sale and use of firearms.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, said it explicitly: “[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

No right in the Bill of Rights is without limit. As a historical illustration, Justice Scalia cited an opinion by a Massachusetts chief justice: “The liberty of the press was to be unrestrained, but he who used it was to be responsible in cases of its abuse; like the right to keep fire arms, which does not protect him who uses them for annoyance or destruction.”

Considerations of public safety and the public's welfare limit the rights of free speech and a free press – you can't falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater and cause a panic, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said in a 1919 opinion. Such considerations will allow sensible limits on the right to bear arms, too.

That means the significant battles in our nation's effort to limit the damage from firearms remain to be fought. As Justice Scalia noted, “The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns…. But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.”

That's a reasonable ruling, in keeping with the historical underpinnings of our Constitution. Certainly outlawing handguns would simplify efforts to limit the damage they do. But by clearly ruling out that option, the court's decision should bolster efforts to take practical steps to make guns safer, keep them out of the wrong hands and firmly punish those who use them to break the law.

Foes of firearms may wish our Founding Fathers had said something else, or said nothing at all, about citizens' right to bear arms. But Justice Scalia is right: They didn't.