WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court held Monday that Americans have the right to own a gun for self-defense anywhere they live, expanding the conservative court's embrace of gun rights since John Roberts became Chief Justice. [See a slide show of the Supreme Court Justices]
By a 5-4 vote, the justices cast doubt on handgun bans in the Chicago area, but signaled that some limitations on the Constitution's "right to keep and bear arms" could survive legal challenges.
On its busy final day before a three-month recess, the court also ruled that a public law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join, jumped into the nation's charged immigration debate by agreeing to review an employer sanctions law from Arizona and said farewell to Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring after more than 34 years.
A short distance from the court, the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Stevens. [Check out our editorial cartoons on Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination.]
In the guns case, Justice Samuel Alito said for the court that the Second Amendment right "applies equally to the federal government and the states."
The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed. Roberts voted with the majority.
Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the home.
That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal city with unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.
Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill., where handguns have been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.
Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.
Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws. Instead, it ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that the statutes eventually would fall.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said he was disappointed with the ruling, adding that officials already are at work rewriting the ordinance to meet the court's gun rights guarantee and protect Chicago residents from gun violence.
Alito made plain that local officials still have some leeway in crafting gun laws. He noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."
Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, each wrote a dissent. Stevens said that unlike the Washington case, Monday's decision "could prove far more destructive — quite literally — to our nation's communities and to our constitutional structure."
The ruling seemed unlikely to resolve questions and ongoing legal challenges about precisely what sort of gun control laws are permissible.
The response of the District to the court's ruling in 2008 is illustrative of the uncertainty.
Local lawmakers in Washington, D.C. imposed a series of regulations on handgun ownership, including requirements to register weapons and to submit to a multiple-choice test, fingerprinting and a ballistics test. Owners must also show they have gotten classroom instruction on handling a gun and have spent at least an hour on the firing range. Some 800 people have now registered handguns in the city.