WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's landmark decision Thursday striking down the District of Columbia's gun ban will have wide-ranging legal, political and public safety consequences.
There will be more lawsuits, probably lots of them. Some guns laws will survive, while others will fall. The decision will help showcase the Supreme Court as a potential issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and will put some other politicians on the spot.
Most immediately, the court's 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller poses myriad questions for which answers are still a work in progress. Here are some of them.
Q. Does this eliminate all gun restrictions?
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court's majority, stressed that the Second Amendment doesn't guarantee an "unlimited" right to bear arms. Scalia cited as legitimate longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, as well as bans on carrying firearms into schools and government buildings.
Laws imposing "conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms" are also probably safe, Scalia wrote, adding that his list of Second Amendment-friendly gun restrictions "does not purport to be exhaustive."
Q. But the ruling will extend beyond Washington, D.C.'s gun ban, right?
A. Yes, although not right away.
The latest federal compilation of state and local firearm laws is some 458 pages long, and it was published in 2005, so it's not up to date. Boston, Chicago and Denver, for instance, ban the possession and sale of assault weapons. Los Angeles and San Francisco ban the sale of .50-caliber handguns. Oakland, Calif., bans the sale of ultra-compact handguns.
An untold number of these existing laws will be subject to challenge. This will take time and money as lawsuits are filed and ordinances are revised.
"At the very least," the American Bar Association predicted in a legal filing, "(a) shift in the law will prompt years of litigation regarding the constitutionality of statutory, regulatory and administrative provisions."
Q. Will the ruling allow those who're arrested or convicted on gun charges to challenge their cases?
"Virtually every defense attorney" whose client is facing "a gun count" in the indictment is obligated to seek dismissal, said Jack King, a D.C. attorney and the director of public affairs for the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers.
The impact could be extensive because many of the gun charges are linked to drug raids, he said, adding that, "Very often guns go with drugs in this town." Fifteen percent of state inmates and 13 percent of federal inmates carried a handgun during commission of their crimes, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
Q. How about federal gun laws? Will they be affected?
A. Potentially yes, although most firearm regulations are at the state or local level.
Congress has passed a number of firearms laws in the past, such as a since-expired assault weapon ban written in 1993. Only time will tell which gets challenged next.
"I fear that the District's policy choice may well be just the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, adding that resulting litigation will "surely give rise to a far more active judicial role."
Q. What kind of gun laws will probably survive?
A. Narrowly tailored laws may be safe, along with laws that target the most sophisticated weaponry.
Scalia and the court's majority stress D.C.'s "absolute" prohibition of handguns and the fact that the District "totally bans" such firearms. Presumably, laws that have a narrower focus will have a better chance in court.
The court also noted that the Second Amendment right to bear arms may be limited to those weapons "in common use at the time" the amendment was written. In other words: no rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Although this certainly doesn't mean only 18th century flintlocks may be legally owned, the court stressed that sawed-off shotguns as well as "M-16 rifles and the like may be banned."
Q. How about Washington, D.C., itself?
A. Most immediately, the court orders the D.C. government to issue a firearm license to Richard Heller, the District resident who challenged the gun ban. The gun ban itself, Mayor Adrian Fenty said Thursday, will technically remain on the books for at least "several weeks."
In the meantime, Fenty said, he's ordered D.C. police to "implement an orderly process for allowing qualified citizens" to register handguns.
Q. How will this decision play politically in this election year?
A. In the short term, the decision highlights the importance of the Supreme Court, and offers a wedge issue for political operatives. In the long run: Who knows?
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain instantly embraced the decision, while his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, offered a more nuanced view seemingly designed to minimize differences on the volatile gun issue. Obama stressed that, like the court's majority, he believes that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to bear arms. Obama sidestepped other parts of the decision, saying simply that it offers "much needed guidance" to officials.
As one of the Supreme Court's most closely watched decisions of the year, and one of 11 decided on a narrow 5-4 margin, the gun case may be Exhibit A in the importance of electing a candidate who's likely to appoint at least one new justice.
Below the presidential level, operatives will exploit the ruling, particularly in congressional districts where gun rights are taken seriously.
"Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., found herself on the losing end of the Supreme Court's ruling today, as her liberal opposition to Second Amendment rights was defeated," the National Republican Congressional Committee declared shortly after the decision was announced.
Q. How will interest groups fare?
A. Pro-gun and anti-gun groups could both benefit.
Controversy has a way of mobilizing activists, enhancing fundraising and giving volunteers a jolt of adrenalin. The fresh court, legislative and public relations challenges empowered by the court's ruling could guarantee years of full employment. As Alan Gottlieb of the small Second Amendment Foundation put it Thursday, "Our work has only just begun."
(Dave Montgomery contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008