WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider a challenge to Washington D.C.'s strict handgun ban, setting up one of the biggest Second Amendment cases in U.S. history.
Without comment or a recorded vote, the court announced that it would hear the gun ban challenge next year. The case returns the high court to a question it last considered in 1939: Whether individuals, outside of a state militia, enjoy a constitutional right to own firearms. Oral arguments are likely in the spring, a decision by the end of June.
"Clearly, the Supreme Court wants to decide the core question of what the Second Amendment means," said Dennis Henigan, the legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, in an interview.
Henigan's opponents in the gun debate, even those who disagree violently over the merits, concur that the case entitled District of Columbia v. Heller could produce a landmark ruling.
"It's a very big deal," Alan Gura, the leading attorney in the challenge to D.C.'s tough gun laws, said on the Supreme Court steps Tuesday afternoon. "Laws that disarm people, laws that leave people defenseless, are going to fail."
The case puts the Second Amendment's wording, long subject to academic debate, front-and-center.
In full, the amendment states:
"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."
In its unsigned order Tuesday, the Court said it would consider whether the Washington, D.C. law violates "the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes."
Put another way, the court will be deciding whether the constitutional right to bear firearms is an "individual" right or one that's attached to a state interest in maintaining a militia. If the court decides that it's an individual right, it will be easier for proponents of gun ownership to challenge other gun restrictions.
"For over 70 years, the court has refused to answer the question of whether the right to bear firearms is an individual right," said Clark Neily, another attorney challenging D.C.'s law.
Supported by the libertarian Cato Institute, gun-rights advocates first took aim at Washington's 31-year-old gun law in 2003. Written when the city was dubbed the nation's" murder capital", the law prohibits ownership of handguns by all residents except retired police officers. The law permits ownership of rifles and shotguns but requires that they be stored unarmed, disassembled and with trigger locks.
Gun-rights advocates recruited six model plaintiffs, representing diverse occupations, races and genders, to challenge the law. Each said they feel threatened by the city's high crime rate.
"I can point out the bullet holes in my front door; there's a drug haven 50 yards from my house," said Dick Anthony Heller, a 65-year-old security guard. "I've seen the District destroy people's lives simply because they want to protect themselves."
A self-described "Army brat" who attended high school in Manteca in California's northern San Joaquin Valley, Heller said he was largely "oblivious" to politics until the gun case came along. His name now comes first on the case that everyone seems to agree will make history.
A federal judge, citing United States v. Miller, a 1939 Supreme Court case, rejected Heller's claim that the Second Amendment upholds an individual right to bear firearms. An appellate panel overturned the judge and embraced the more expansive concept of gun-ownership rights.
"The right to keep and bear arms was not created by the government, but rather preserved by it," Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative appointed by President Reagan, wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "The amendment does not protect the right of militiamen to keep and bear arms, but rather the right of the people."
The Bush administration, through former Attorney General John Ashcroft, has endorsed the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment. The administration has yet to weigh in formally on the D.C. case, although that may be coming. Already, states are divided, with Texas, Florida and 11 other states supporting the gun-ban challenge while New York and three other states support the D.C. law.
The case already has caused a stir within the Supreme Court's cloistered confines. The Justices convened privately on Nov. 9 to consider the case and others. If at least four justices agree to hear it, the court schedules a case for a full hour-long oral argument that's followed by a decision.
Usually, decisions on petitions come the first workday after such a private conference, in this case on Nov. 13. This time, however, the court waited a week to issue its order. Henigan speculated that the delay reflected some internal deliberations.
"They were busy with the wording," he suggested.