Supreme Court ponders whether to rule on DC's handgun ban

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court takes aim at gun control Friday, in a private conference that soon could explode publicly.

Behind closed doors, the high court's nine justices will consider taking a case that challenges the District of Columbia's stringent handgun ban. Their ultimate decision will shape how far other cities and states can go with their own gun restrictions.

"If the court decides to take this up, it's very likely it will end up being the most important Second Amendment case in history," said Dennis Henigan, the legal director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Henigan predicted "it's more likely than not" that the necessary four justices will vote to consider the case. The court will announce its decision Tuesday, and oral arguments could be heard next year.

Lawyers already are swarming from every angle.

Texas, Florida and 11 other states weighed in earlier on behalf of gun owners who are challenging D.C.'s strict gun laws. New York and three other states want the gun restrictions upheld. Pediatricians filed a brief supporting the ban. A Northern California gun dealer, Russell Nordyke, filed a brief opposing it.

Tom Palmer considers the case a matter of life and death.

Palmer turns 51 this month. He's an openly gay scholar in international relations at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University. He thinks that a handgun saved him years ago in San Jose, Calif., when a gang threatened him.

"A group of young men started yelling at us, 'faggot,' 'homo,' 'queer,' 'we're going to kill you' (and) 'they'll never find your bodies,' " Palmer said in a March 2003 declaration. "Fortunately, I was able to pull my handgun out of my backpack, and our assailants backed off."

He and five other plaintiffs named in the original lawsuit challenged Washington's ban on possessing handguns. The District of Columbia permits possession of other firearms, if they're disassembled or stored with trigger locks.

Their broader challenge is to the fundamental meaning of the Second Amendment. Here, commas, clauses and constitutional history all matter.

The full text of the Second Amendment says, "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."

Gun-control advocates say this means that the government can limit firearms ownership as part of its power to regulate the militia. Gun ownership is cast as a collective right, with the government organizing armed citizens to protect homeland security.

"The Second Amendment permits reasonable regulation of firearms to protect public safety and does not guarantee individuals the absolute right to own the weapons of their choice," New York and the three other states declared in an amicus brief.

Gun-control critics contend that the well-regulated militia business is beside the point, and say the Constitution protects an individual's right to possess guns.

"The right to keep and bear arms should be understood in light of the many reasons that the founding generation of Americans valued that right, including hunting and self-defense," Texas, Florida and the 11 other states declared in a competing amicus brief.

Last March, a divided appellate court panel sided with the individual-rights interpretation and threw out the D.C. handgun ban.

"The right to keep and bear arms was not created by the government, but rather preserved by it," Judge Laurence Silberman 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 ruling clashed with other appellate courts, creating the kind of appellate-circuit split that the Supreme Court likes to resolve.

The ruling obviously stung D.C. officials, but it perplexed gun-control advocates. If D.C. officials tried to salvage their gun-control law by appealing to the Supreme Court — as they then did — they could give the court's conservative majority a chance to undermine gun-control laws nationwide.

"There is a lot at risk," Henigan acknowledged.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia already have indicated sympathy for the individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment, as has the Bush administration. Others have been coy about the amendment's scope.

"People try to read into the tea leaves . . . but that's still very much an open issue," Chief Justice John G. Roberts said during his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing.

The Supreme Court last considered such a direct challenge to Second Amendment interpretation in the 1939 case United States v. Miller. The court upheld the conviction of a bank robber for carrying a sawed-off shotgun across state lines.

There was no evidence, the court said in an opinion written by a conservative justice born in 1862, "that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense."