WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday that Americans nationwide have a constitutional right to have a handgun at home for self-defense, even in cities that until now have outlawed handguns.
The 5-4 decision reversed a ruling that had upheld Chicago’s ban on handguns and all but declared the 1982 ordinance unconstitutional. The justices sent the case back to Chicago for a lower court to issue the final decision.
Monday’s ruling extends the reach of the Second Amendment and will open courthouse doors nationwide for gun rights advocates to challenge restrictions on firearms as unconstitutional. For example, officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco rarely give permits for residents to carry a concealed weapon in public, and gun rights advocates say they want to challenge those restrictions.
The high court did not say those challenges will necessarily succeed, however.
“Despite doomsday proclamations” from city officials, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said extending the reach of the Second Amendment “does not imperil every law regulating firearms.”
He repeated earlier assurances that “reasonable regulations” of firearms will be upheld, including restrictions on gun possession by felons and the mentally ill and bans on guns in schools and government buildings.
But Alito insisted that the Second Amendment is not limited to federal measures, as the court had said in the 19th century. The “right to keep and bear arms” is a measure that “protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective (and) applies equally to the federal government and the states,” he said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined to form the majority.
Outside the court, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre said it was a “monumental day.”
“The opinion of (Chicago) Mayor (Richard) Daley does not trump the Constitution of the United States,” LaPierre said. “It does not throw the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights out the window.”
Though LaPierre hailed Monday’s decision, he said the NRA would keep pushing for the protection of the Second Amendment.
“The NRA will not declare victory until any law-abiding citizen can go out, buy a firearm, own a firearm, protect themselves with it and use it for any other lawful purpose,” he said.
But as LaPierre celebrated victory, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told reporters that despite the ruling, the court had decided that “reasonable restrictions” to the Second Amendment still are allowed.
He said the court’s ruling, while not a surprise, left a “very narrow” definition of a person’s Second Amendment rights by saying it lets a person keep a gun at home for self-defense.
He added that he expects criminals convicted of gun charges to challenge their convictions in light of the case.
As a result of Monday’s ruling, Alan Gura, the lawyer for lead plaintiff Otis McDonald, said “people very, very soon in Chicago will be able to buy and lawfully possess handguns.”
Monday’s ruling follows a decision two years ago in which the court for the first time declared that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals. The amendment says, “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.”
In earlier rulings, the court had suggested that this amendment mostly concerned states and militias.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and said the Second Amendment protects the right to have a handgun for self-defense. But since the District of Columbia is a federal city and not a state, the court did not decide then whether the Second Amendment could be used to challenge municipal ordinances or state laws.
The hourlong session ended with a tribute to Justice John Paul Stevens on his last day. He is retiring after more than 34 years on the court.
“We will miss your wisdom, your perceptive insights and vast life experience, your unaffected decency and resolute commitment to justice,” Roberts told him.
Stevens said he had been honored to serve on the court for so many years.
“If I have overstayed my welcome, it is because this is such a unique and wonderful job,” he said.