In a ruling, the US Supreme Court struck down Washington DC’s ban on handguns. The judgement is likely to lead to fewer restrictions on the ownership, sale, and possession of firearms.

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Supreme Court rules against
US cities fighting gun violence

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

28 June 2008: A June 2008 US Supreme Court ruling on gun control appears to be a clear defeat for American cities struggling to control gun violence. The ruling struck down the city of Washington DC’s ban on handguns and will likely lead to fewer restrictions on the ownership, sale, and possession of firearms.

Update December 2012: US mayors fight against guns

The DC laws
In 1976, the US capital Washington DC passed laws banning handguns and requiring other firearms to be stored disassembled or with trigger locks. The laws had survived numerous legal challenges over the years. In March 2008, the conservative Bush Supreme Court heard the latest challenge. The plaintiff argued before the Supreme Court that he felt unsafe because he had to store his personal firearms outside the city. The plaintiff and his allies asked that the 32-year-old DC laws be struck down as violations of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Collective versus individual rights
The Second Amendment states that “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.” This sentence is at the center of gun control disputes in the US.

One interpretation of the phrase is that gun ownership is a collective right, connected to the formation of a government militia or military force. Gun control advocates and the city of Washington, DC support this view, as have most judges until now.

The opposing view holds that gun ownership is an individual right, and the state militia clause is essentially irrelevant. Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by a 2-1 vote, became the first appellate court to uphold this interpretation, paving the way for the US Supreme Court to hear the case.

The Supreme Court’s agreement with the individual rights interpretation means that firearms restrictions could be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny by judges protecting what is now considered a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Mayors’ views
Washington, DC received support in its defense of gun control before the Supreme Court from the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle and Trenton. These cities, joined by the US Conference of Mayors, filed an amicus brief, which argues, “Gun violence poses a serious threat to American cities. In roughly the last thirty years, the United States Department of Justice reports that there were over 340,000 homicides in large American cities. Over sixty per cent of the nation’s homicides during that period were committed using a gun… In addition to this terrible human toll, communities such as amici cities face massive economic costs and losses due to the fear and danger associated with gun violence.”

The brief continues that, “Firearms regulation is a critical part of cities’ efforts to protect the health and safety of their residents. Cities have adopted a wide range of measures – from bans on certain types of weapons and ammunition to eligibility and registration requirement – to reduce the threat of gun violence in their communities. The range of measures cities have adopted reflects the variety of challenges cities face and underscores the need for local flexibility in this area.”

There are few issues in recent years on which US urban mayors are more united and more vocal than gun control. In 2006, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The bipartisan coalition now includes more than 320 US mayors who work with their state and federal representatives to pass legislation designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. 

At least 38 states are currently considering gun safety laws ranging from strengthening ownership and registration requirements to making it easier to track guns, especially those used in crimes. With the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Washington, DC case, the status of all this proposed legislation is now in question.

Future outlook
The Supreme Court’s decision does not overturn all existing gun laws in the US. Certain guns laws, such as those prohibiting individuals convicted of serious crimes from owning guns, will still stand. What the ruling does essentially is to change the standard by which all gun laws in the US are evaluated.

Generally, gun laws have been allowed in the US so long as they are reasonable. Observers expect that the courts will now adopt a stricter measure of scrutiny, allowing gun laws only when they meet a compelling, and narrowly defined, state interest.

The federal government supports stricter scrutiny. Vice President Dick Cheney signed a legal brief demanding that the Supreme Court strike down the DC law immediately. A majority of Congress – 55 senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives – also signed a brief asking the court to overturn the DC gun ban. Many believe that the federal representatives were acquiescing to the will of the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that promotes the right to own firearms. The NRA has 4.3 million members and is widely considered to be the most effective lobbying organization in America.

Five states and several organizations including the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Pediatricians filed briefs in support of Washington, DC.

Litigation will likely continue for years about how the stricter standard will be defined and applied. And the debate over collective versus individual rights will likely never be resolved. The only certainty for America’s cities is that the uphill climb to use gun control laws to curb urban violence has become much steeper.
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