Where gun laws are headed

The Supreme Court is considering its first big Second Amendment case in 70 years, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, but there

What happened

The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in its first big Second Amendment case in almost 70 years, in a challenge to Washington, D.C.’s strict ban on owning handguns. The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, asks whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns or, as court precedent holds, a collective right to bear arms to form “a well regulated militia.” The decision, expected by the end of June, could have widespread influence on U.S. gun laws. (Reuters)

What the commentators said

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The outcome of this case isn’t really in doubt, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate. “Only eight minutes into the argument,” a majority of justices signaled they will support an individual right. But in a twist, the court’s five conservatives have evidently given up “judicial restraint” for a sweeping “new constitutional right,” while the four liberals rediscovered “the beauty of local government.” So much for that “old line” that there’s no “politics at the high court.”

With an individual right to bear arms apparently settled, said USA Today in an editorial, the “crucial question” for the justices becomes: “Then what?” Is there no limit on government’s ability to regulate gun ownership? It is “vital” that the court not take that broad step, and instead “protect reasonable restrictions on weapons ownership,” such as licensing, registration, and “rational limits” on machine guns, assault rifles, and other “heavier weapons.”

The problem with that is letting judges decide what is “reasonable,” said Ellis Washington in The Christian Science Monitor. The “reasonable person standard” is a “legal fiction” that dates back to 1837 England, and in this case it would allow a “biased judge” to legally deny millions of gun owners their “constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” just by declaring a local ban “reasonable.” That isn’t “common sense—it’s tyranny.” Besides, isn’t law supposed to aspire to “the highest standards—not just ‘reasonable’ ones”?

There’s “not really a ‘correct’ answer” to the legal question at hand, said Matthew Yglesias in The Atlantic. The individual and collective rights readings of the Second Amendment are both “defensible.” But “in policy terms,” there’s something in this for both sides. By recognizing “a limited individual right to gun ownership,” the Supreme Court could help us move beyond “table-pounding” to a “more productive regulatory equilibrium” in which urban areas can have “sensible” gun laws and rural areas need not fear that all gun restrictions are “stalking horses for a liberal plot to take everyone’s guns away.”

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