The gun lobby has finally won its dream ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, but could it be that this is just the breakthrough which can finally lead to sensible gun control?
Going beyond even what the Bush administration had asked of it, a 5-4 majority of the justices has held that “the right to bear arms” is a personal right and not, as federal courts have largely ruled since 1939, a provisional right pegged to maintaining public safety.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Constitution's Second Amendment asserts “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
It is hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers intended to be the willing armorers of urban gang warfare. But so it goes. The court has ruled. That's that.
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A hornet's nest
In quashing Washington D.C.'s near-total ban on handguns, the court has kicked over a hornets' nest of litigation. The National Rifle Association has already filed a challenge to Chicago's similarly, if not quite comparably, stringent restrictions. Suits against New York City and San Francisco seem certain.
Expect, too, a rising tide of challenges to just about every gun control law. The NRA and the rest of the gun lobby had already been busy pushing state legislators to allow ever larger numbers of people to carry ever more sorts of firearms, even concealed, to ever more places: work sites, bars, churches, you name it.
But wait. Scalia also wrote, “Nothing 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 firearms.”
The way, then, seems to lie open to what many gun-control advocates have argued all along are regulations that most people would consider common-sense safety precautions.
And into the bargain, the gun lobby has been shorn of one of its most lurid and panic-inducing claims, the slippery-slope argument that has had the NRA et al. yelling for decades that every gun-control proposal would lead – and is even meant to lead – to government gun-confiscation.
It is set in stone now that that can't happen. Control proposals can be examined on their merits, exclusive of that doomsday scenario. Much will depend upon what the court makes of its own ruling. Does it follow, for instance, that because citizens have a right to some sort of a gun, they have a right to every sort?
Politicians who suggest reasonable controls are presumably now insulated from some of the mad-dog attacks that the gun lobby has excelled at and never shied from.
The irony in all this is that as a matter of practical politics, any broad barrier to firearms ownership has been off the table all along and was sure to stay off for any imaginable future. Outside a few large cities, the electorate wouldn't stand for it.
In any event, Charlton Heston can relax that cold dead hand. And over time, just maybe our long-clinched gun politics can loosen up, too.