The Supreme Court ruled for the first time yesterday that the Second Amendment provides all Americans a fundamental right to bear arms, a long-sought victory for gun rights advocates who have chafed at federal, state and local efforts to restrict gun ownership.
The court was considering a restrictive handgun law in Chicago and one of its suburbs that was similar to the Washington, D.C., law that it ruled against in 2008. The 5-4 decision does not strike any other gun control measures currently in place, but it provides a legal basis for challenges across the country where gun owners think that government has been too restrictive.
"It is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the conservatives on the court.
The victory might be more symbolic than substantive, at least initially. Few cities have laws as restrictive as those in Chicago and Washington.
Alito said government can restrict gun ownership in certain instances but did not elaborate on what those would be. That will be determined in future litigation.
Alito said the court had made clear in its 2008 decision that it was not casting doubt on such long-standing measures as keeping felons and the mentally ill from possessing guns or keeping guns out of "sensitive places" such as schools and government buildings.
"We repeat those assurances here," Alito wrote. "Despite municipal respondents' doomsday proclamations, [the decision] does not imperil every law regulating firearms."
The decision came on the final day of the term and at a time of change for the court. Justice John Paul Stevens sat at the mahogany bench for the last time, and will end more than 34 years on the court when his retirement becomes official today. Confirmation hearings for Solicitor General Elena Kagan, President Obama's choice to replace Stevens, began yesterday.
The guns case was the logical sequel to the court's 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. That decision established for the first time that the Second Amendment's "right to keep and bear arms" referred to an individual right, not one related to military service. But the decision that there is a right to keep a gun in one's home did not extend beyond the federal government and its enclaves.
Gun rights activists immediately filed suit against the handgun restrictions in Chicago and the suburb of Oak Park.