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Gun-rights activists are “euphoric,” said James Oliphant and Michael J. Higgins in the Chicago Tribune. In more than 200 years of rulings, the Supreme Court has never stated definitively that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to bear arms. Back in 1939, an 8–0 majority interpreted the amendment’s problematic clause—“a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”—to mean only that people in “militias” or the military were entitled to have guns. But last week, by announcing it would hear a challenge to Washington, D.C.’s restrictive gun law, the high court signaled a willingness to reconsider. The district’s law, passed in 1976, bans all ownership of handguns, and requires that rifles be stored with a trigger lock. Given the high court’s “conservative drift,” gun-rights groups are now optimistic that the ban will be held unconstitutional—and the right to bear arms will finally be fully recognized. “I’m on cloud nine,” said Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation.
The court’s decision will hinge on the interpretation of a single word, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. That word is “militia.” Gun-control advocates claim that in using that qualifying word, the Founders meant to guarantee only that “the people,” as a group, had the right to bears arms when defending society at large. But that’s nonsensical on its face. Throughout the Bill of Rights, the phrase “the right of the people” appears repeatedly, and always refers to individual liberties, not to “the right of the government.” The Framers obviously included gun ownership among those rights in order to ensure it could not be taken away by the state.
“A lot has changed since the nation’s founding,” said The New York Times. At the time the Bill of Rights was written, people kept muskets in their home “to be ready for military service.” That’s very different from having “an absolute right” to carry semiautomatic handguns into crowded public places or own a small arsenal of assault weapons. Until recently, most judges and constitutional lawyers agreed that the Constitution permits reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, said law professor Kenneth Lasson in the Baltimore Sun. But then the National Rifle Association began underwriting lucrative essay contests and endowing professorships for academics who would agree with the extreme thesis that gun ownership is an inalienable right, like freedom of speech. Suddenly, that view found its way into more than 50 legal essays and became conservative dogma. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Washington, D.C., handgun ban, the NRA should be gleeful indeed. It got what it paid for.
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