WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices fired off numerous Second Amendment questions Tuesday morning as they considered the most important gun-control case in decades.
But you needn't dress in black robes to have questions about the case, called District of Columbia v. Heller. Here are some of them:
Q. Who is Heller, and what does he want?
A. Dick Anthony Heller is a 66-year-old Army veteran and security guard at a federal building several blocks from the Supreme Court building. Because of the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, Heller says, he must keep his personal firearms stored outside the District. He feels unsafe as a result.
Heller was one of six D.C. residents who were recruited to file a 2003 lawsuit challenging the District's laws. Tactically, each represented a distinct facet of the district's population. They included a gay man worried about defending himself and a neighborhood activist threatened by local drug dealers. Heller is the only one remaining on the case.
He and his allies want the 32-year-old D.C. handgun ban — and a related law requiring other firearms to be stored disassembled or with trigger locks — struck down as a violation of the Second Amendment.
Q. The Second Amendment: What does that say, again?
A. "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."
The comma placement and archaic capitalizations, which can make the amendment look so esoteric to modern readers, vary in different versions.
Q. What's so important about a "well-regulated Militia"?
A. This is the heart of the matter.
One interpretation holds that gun ownership is a collective right, connected to the formation of a state militia. Gun-control advocates and the District of Columbia adhere to this view. Until now, so have most judges, following the lead of the Supreme Court's last big Second Amendment case, in 1939.
The competing view is that gun ownership is an individual right, and the state militia clause is essentially irrelevant. Heller, the National Rifle Association and their numerous allies — not all of them conservative — believe in this individual-rights view. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by 2-1 became the first appellate panel to uphold the individual-rights interpretation.
If the Supreme Court agrees, firearms restrictions could be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny by judges protecting something considered fundamental to the Constitution.
Q. Could the court eliminate all gun laws?
The most zealous gun-ownership advocates concede that certain gun laws can survive. For instance, Texas and other states argue in a legal brief that bans on machine gun ownership or gun ownership by convicted felons will still stand. The key question becomes what standard of review will apply in evaluating other gun laws.
Many gun-ownership advocates want strict scrutiny. This very demanding standard requires that laws be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest. Racial discrimination cases, for instance, currently merit strict scrutiny.
Gun-control advocates want a less severe standard, allowing gun laws so long as they're reasonable. The Bush administration proposes a "flexible" intermediate standard that's sympathetic to many existing federal gun-control laws.
Q. The National Rifle Association must have been the driving force behind this challenge, right?
A. Not really.
True, the NRA filed an amicus brief supporting Heller. Originally, though, libertarian-minded lawyers allied with the Cato Institute organized the lawsuit, and this distinct flavor still tinges the case. One original plaintiff, Cato Institute specialist Tom Palmer, writes of "trying to eradicate coercion and secure liberty for all." Heller, for his part, describes his political party affiliation as "other" on D.C. voter-registration records.
The NRA's chief executive officer, Wayne LaPierre, conceded that "there was a real dispute on our side" about bringing the legal challenge now. For whatever reason that the NRA initially hesitated — and some cynical explanations have been offered — the organization's 4.3 million members and the libertarians are now allies.
Q. What does the Bush administration want?
A. Depends on what you mean by "Bush administration."
Solicitor General Paul Clement filed a brief supporting an individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment. But in a compromise move denounced by gun-rights groups, Clement then urged justices to let a lower court decide the fate of the D.C. law. Clement said judges should be allowed to uphold reasonable gun laws including, potentially, the D.C. law itself.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in an extraordinary move, dissented and signed a legal brief demanding that the D.C. law be struck down immediately. Conservative columnist Robert Novak subsequently claimed that President Bush privately agrees with his vice president on this case.
Q. What does Congress want?
A. If majority ruled, the D.C. gun law would be history.
Fifty-five senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives, a majority of both bodies, signed a brief urging the court to overturn the D.C. gun ban. Rural Democrats, and even some out-and-out liberals, joined in the congressional brief.
Q. What's going to happen next?
A. More lawsuits are coming.
The Supreme Court will rule before it adjourns for summer vacation, probably sometime in late June. Whatever the court decides, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President John Payton predicted, "we will have not one definitive answer, but probably ongoing litigation about how this standard works."
Q. How do I find out more?
A. Read the oral argument transcript, which will be available at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/.