Behind the Supreme Court's Gun Decision

A clear victory for gun advocates, it is still unlikely to end debates over other gun control laws.

Heller, a security guard, was the plaintiff in the case.

Heller, a security guard, was the plaintiff in the case.

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The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling today upholding an individual right to bear arms is a clear victory for gun advocates. But the court's divided decision is unlikely to end debate over myriad other gun control proposals across the country.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, held for the first time that the Constitution provides an individual right to bear arms, such as for self-defense, rather than a right that applies only to a state militia.

The decision upheld an appellate court ruling striking down Washington, D.C.'s 1976 handgun ban. The case marked the first time in more than 70 years that the Supreme Court had addressed the Second Amendment and the first time it spoke directly about the implication of an individual right.

In doing so, the court struck down two of the District of Columbia's gun control laws: its handgun ban and its requirement that other firearms kept at home have a trigger lock or be disassembled.

Relying on the broader historical record, Scalia wrote that "putting all of these textual elements together, we find that they guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation."

The court's liberal minority, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, held the opposite: namely that the amendment guaranteed only a collective right for a militia. "There is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution."

Indeed, Justice Stephen Breyer warned that the ruling jeopardized other gun laws. "In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas."

The ruling is likely to play out in the ongoing presidential campaign. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain applauded the ruling and has already begun attacking his rival, Barack Obama, for not signing an amicus brief against the D.C. ban.

The precise implications of the case for states across the country will continue to unfold in the coming months. Already, lawyers have pledged to challenge gun bans in cities like Chicago and San Francisco. And other challenges are likely.

Yet Scalia noted that the ruling should not be interpreted to "cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings."

In the D.C. case, filed by a private security guard, Dick Heller, the remedy the majority recommended is simple: a license for him to keep a handgun at home.