New ruling shows gun laws can be balanced

The Observer editorial board

A federal court Monday upheld gun control laws passed after the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
A federal court Monday upheld gun control laws passed after the Newtown, Conn., massacre. 2013 AP File Photo

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns, gun-rights advocates passionately celebrated the decision.

It has gone less noticed that since that ruling, gun owners have brought hundreds of challenges to gun laws and almost none has succeeded. That’s because while the Supreme Court in District of Columbia vs. Heller established the individual right to bear arms, Justice Antonin Scalia also said:

“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 on the commercial sale of arms.”

On Monday, another federal appeals court upheld restrictions on firearms. A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit ruled that most of the laws passed in New York and Connecticut in response to the 2012 shootings at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary were constitutional. That included bans on certain semiautomatic assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

While the court struck down a couple of smaller provisions, the ruling signaled, again, that it is politics, not the Constitution or any Supreme Court ruling, that can currently prevent reasonable restrictions on gun ownership in America.

The Heller ruling “made clear there is a space in the Second Amendment for gun control laws,” UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler told the Observer editorial board on Tuesday. With pro-gun-control rulings since 2008, “Courts are not showing some massive resistance against Heller. They’re taking seriously Heller’s call to balance gun rights with public safety.”

That balance is obviously achievable despite what the NRA would have you believe. The group portrays any regulation as the beginning of a movement to confiscate all guns. That’s self-serving silliness. Universal background checks, which ensure that felons and the mentally ill cannot legally purchase guns, are common sense, not a Trojan Horse.

The public agrees. While Americans split over the general notion of gun control, most polls show overwhelming support for a number of specific gun-ownership restrictions.

In a Gallup poll released Monday, 55 percent favor tougher gun control laws, a jump of 8 percentage points from last year. Only 11 percent believe current laws are too strict. The poll was conducted a week after the Oregon community college shooting.

The Supreme Court is considering now whether to take up an Illinois case. And a recent ruling in a Michigan case created division within federal appeals courts that could prompt a high court review.

In the meantime, federal courts are almost always finding in favor of reasonable gun control laws. Wracked by the most gun violence of any developed nation, we need those laws not only to be upheld, but vigorously enforced.