" 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."
It's starting to look like "We the People" are going to win this one, at least by early indications..............
March 18 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled they will declare that the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to possess firearms, questioning the District of Columbia's ban on handguns.
The court today considered whether the Second Amendment right to ``keep and bear arms'' covers all people or only those affiliated with a National Guard or other state-run militia. The Supreme Court has never squarely addressed that question.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the court's swing vote, said the Second Amendment confers ``a general right to bear arms quite without reference to the militia either way.''
The District of Columbia's 32-year-old gun ban, by some measures the strictest in the nation, bars most residents from owning handguns and requires that all legal firearms be kept unloaded and either disassembled or under trigger lock. Six city residents challenged the law, saying they want firearms available in their homes for self-defense.
The dispute is probably the most closely watched case of the Supreme Court's current term. People began lining up outside the court two days ago to secure one of fewer than 100 seats available to the general public. The argument session went 20 minutes beyond the hour and 15 minutes the court had allotted.
A ruling adopting the individual-rights approach would mark a long-desired victory for opponents of gun control. At the same time, the practical impact will turn on how much leeway the court gives government officials to regulate firearms, and the justices today gave mixed signals on that issue.
Several members of the court suggested the ban went too far in restricting gun rights. ``What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?'' Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia also questioned whether a rifle or shotgun could effectively protect a person at home, given the city's requirement that the weapon be kept unloaded or under trigger lock.
``Even if you have a gun, under this code provision it doesn't seem as if you could use it for the defense of your home,'' Alito said.
Other justices were more supportive of the D.C. law. Justice Stephen Breyer equated it to a law enacted in 18th century Massachusetts requiring that gunpowder be kept upstairs to reduce the risk of fire.
``We give in both instances, then and now, leeway to the cities and states to work out what's reasonable in light of their problems,'' Breyer said.
Kennedy didn't make clear how much deference he would accord lawmakers. He asked several times whether the Second Amendment, when enacted, protected people who lived in remote areas and needed protection against wild animals and hostile Indian tribes.
Kennedy also sought assurances from Alan Gura, the lawyer arguing against the Washington law, that governments could still restrict machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.
Gura said they could, though he was less definitive when Justice John Paul Stevens followed up by asking whether a university could ban guns in student dormitories.
``It's something that might be doable, but, again, that's something that's so far from what we have here,'' Gura said.
The district's lawyer, Walter Dellinger, pointed to what he said was the ``eminent reasonableness and careful balance of this law.'' He said the measure could be interpreted to give homeowners broad power to unlock their weapons when needed for self-defense.
The Bush administration, represented by U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, is taking a middle ground in the case. Clement contended today that, while the Second Amendment protects individual rights, it allows ``reasonable regulations'' and doesn't necessarily require the D.C. law be overturned.
Adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, the amendment reads in its entirety: ``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.''
A U.S. appeals court struck down Washington's ban and said the Second Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable restrictions on their right to own firearms. The decision marked the first time a federal appeals court had ever voided a law on Second Amendment grounds.
The Supreme Court hasn't considered the Second Amendment since 1939, when it issued a ruling that both sides now claim as support for their position.
Thomas and Scalia
Before today's argument, only two of the nine justices had so much as hinted how they might read the Second Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas intimated in a 1997 case that he was receptive to the individual-rights approach, as did Scalia in a book the same year.
Kennedy, Roberts and Alito joined those two today in suggesting they will vote to enshrine an individual right. Roberts made his views clear with the very first question of the session, directed at Dellinger.
``If it is limited to state militias, why would they say `the right of the people'?'' Roberts asked. ``In other words, why wouldn't they say `state militias have the right to keep arms'?''
The case is District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at email@example.com