WASHINGTON -- The next big issue in the debate over guns -- whether people have a right to be armed in public -- is moving closer to Supreme Court review.
A provocative ruling by a panel of federal appeals judges in Chicago struck down the only statewide ban on carrying concealed weapons, in Illinois. Their ruling is somewhat at odds with those of other federal courts that have largely upheld state and local gun laws, including restrictions on concealed weapons, since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling declaring a right to have a gun for self-defense.
In 2008, the court voted 5-4 in District of Columbia v. Heller to strike down Washington's ban on handgun ownership and focused mainly on the right to defend one's own home. The court left for another day how broadly the Second Amendment may protect gun rights in other settings.
Legal scholars say the competing appellate rulings mean the day is drawing near for a new high court case on guns.
The appeals court ruling in Chicago came early in a week that ended with the mass shooting in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including 20 children at an elementary school and the presumed gunman.
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Laurie Levenson, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that, along with thorny legal issues, "we have the overlay of these tragedies hitting us on a somewhat regular basis."
The author of a book that traces the battle over gun control in the United States said he thinks Supreme Court intervention is likely in the short term. "Since the Heller case, the next great question for the Supreme Court to decide was whether there is a right to carry guns in public," said UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, whose book "Gunfight" was published last year.
About 40 states make it easy for people to carry a gun in public. In California, New York and a few other states, local and state regulations make it difficult, if not impossible, to get a license to carry a weapon. Illinois and the District of Columbia have been the only places to refuse to allow people to be armed in public.
Gun rights advocates and gun control supporters are as split over the issue of having guns in public as they were over whether the Constitution protected gun ownership at all -- and along the same lines.
Jonathan Lowy, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said: "If law enforcement makes a determination that somebody would increase the danger to the public by carrying a loaded gun on the streets, then that person should not be carrying a loaded gun. Some people in the gun lobby want to tie the hands of law enforcement."
But Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, said, "Clearly, the individual right under the Constitution does not apply only to your home." Sometimes, he said, "The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."