Supreme Court Weighs Constitutionality of State, Local Gun Control


WASHINGTON (March 02, 2010)—The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a landmark gun control case that could have significant national implications for gun rights and regulation.

In McDonald v. Chicago, the court will determine whether Chicago's handgun ban violates the Constitution. In doing so, it will also decide the issue of whether a strictly protected right to bear arms applies across the board, or if state and local jurisdictions can make their own decisions about gun regulation.

Maryland is one of only six states without a provision similar to the Second Amendment in its state constitution. Last November, a Maryland appeals court ruled that the Second Amendment does not apply to the state, but the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn that decision.

Glenn Ivey, the state's attorney for Prince George's County, contributed to an amicus brief filed in the case by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Ivey said it's difficult to predict what impact the case will have on Maryland until the court rules, but it could open the door to all sorts of challenges to existing gun-control laws in the state.

"We've got restrictions on convicted felons, we've got restrictions on certain types of guns ... there's a lot that we have in place that could be undermined or precluded depending on how the Supreme Court rules," Ivey said.

The case follows a 2008 gun control ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court found that a similar firearm ban in the District violated the Second Amendment. In Heller, the court ruled on the issue of gun rights in federal districts, but didn't make a determination about whether state and local governments are also bound by the Second Amendment.

The 5-4 decision in Heller opened the door for the McDonald case, and it is widely believed that the court will reach a similar finding this time around. At Tuesday's hearing, the justices indicated that they were ready to expand their finding in Heller and rule that the Second Amendment applies to the states.

"I don't see how you can read Heller and not take away from it the notion that the Second Amendment, whether you want to label it fundamental or not, was extremely important to the framers in their view of what liberty meant," said Chief Justice John Roberts.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who dissented on the Heller decision, took the lead in questioning the logic of striking down Chicago's handgun ban, suggesting that federal judges might not be well-suited to decide on local issues.

"To be specific, suppose Chicago says, look, by banning handguns—not in the hills, not hunting, nothing like that, nothing outside the city—in the city, we save several hundred human lives every year ... How do you decide the case?" asked Breyer.

Alan Gura, a libertarian lawyer from Virginia who successfully argued the Heller case, is also the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in McDonald.

Gura replied to Breyer, "We decide that by looking, not to which side has the better statistics, but rather to what the framers said in the Constitution, because that policy choice was made for us in the Constitution."

Gura said after the hearing that he's not against all gun laws, but he believes that any laws designed to make gun ownership expensive, burdensome, or impossible, should disappear from the books.

Attorneys for Chicago argued that the framers' intent in the wording of the Second Amendment is unclear, and that gun regulation is a public safety issue that should be left up to local control.

The case was brought on behalf of Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old Chicago homeowner who wants the right to keep a handgun in his home for self-defense. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, McDonald said he hopes that a ruling for gun rights would be a deterrent to criminals.

"I think it'll give would-be robbers something to think about when they get ready to break into the house of an elderly person," said McDonald.

Jane and Robert Weaver, of Prince George's County, were part of a group of 10 gun rights advocates from Maryland outside the Supreme Court Tuesday morning.

Jane Weaver, the Maryland director for a women's gun rights group called Second Amendment Sisters, said the freedom to own a gun is a basic human right and the lynchpin of the American Bill of Rights.

"The Second Amendment is the one that protects them all," said Weaver. "If the U.S. Constitution falls, that's the end of this great experiment."

Weaver said that residents of Prince George's County in particular need guns for self-defense.

"We live where all the gangbangers and illegal immigrants who come up from El Salvador, MS-13, all those types of people come into our neighborhoods and terrorize us," she said. "We hope that this particular case will open the way for us to regain rights that we've lost as Marylanders. I absolutely love Maryland, and I don't want to give up on it."

The Supreme Court's ruling in the case is expected to be announced in June.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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