Supreme Court To Take On Gun Laws This Spring

Feb 10, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 12:44 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This week is the first anniversary of the Parkland shooting. And a lot has changed since that terrible day - among other things, the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. For the first time in nearly a decade, the justices this spring will take up a gun case. Under the constitutional microscope will be a New York City gun law that bans carrying a licensed and unloaded handgun outside the city limits. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Constitution guarantees a right to own a gun for self-defense in the home. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion striking down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIN SCALIA: We hold that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to have and use arms for self-defense in the home and that the District's handgun ban, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be rendered inoperative, violates that right.

TOTENBERG: The vote was 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the fifth and decisive vote. The court's opinion did have some important caveats, added at Kennedy's insistence according to knowledgeable sources. The court said nothing in its decision should, quote, "cast doubt" on various longstanding gun laws, including those banning guns for felons and the mentally ill or those forbidding guns in sensitive places, like schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions on the sale of guns.

Two years later, the court applied the same rules to the states. That still left lots of questions unanswered. And in the following decade, gun rights activists brought dozens of challenges to existing gun laws across the country. The court, however, refused to hear those challenges, leaving in place lower-court rulings that, almost without exception, upheld gun regulations.

Last month, however, that changed. With Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh replacing the more moderate Justice Kennedy, the court agreed to jump back into the gun debate in the case from New York. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, who's written extensively about gun rights, says the case is potentially huge.

ADAM WINKLER: How the court rules on this case could have an impact on whether states can ban military-style assault rifles or high-capacity magazines or adopt red flag laws that enable people who are dangerous to have their guns removed.

TOTENBERG: The New York City ordinance that the court will rule on bars licensed handgun owners from carrying their guns locked and unloaded outside their homes, except to any one of the seven shooting ranges inside the city. Beyond that, handgun owners are not allowed to carry their weapons to a second home elsewhere in the state or to cross the Hudson River to New Jersey either, or anywhere else in the city - at least not without a difficult-to-obtain license to carry. Those challenging the city ordinance maintain the law thus violates their right to bear arms and their right to travel.

The lower courts upheld the ordinance as a reasonable attempt at protecting public safety and preventing gun violence in the city. But the Supreme Court today is far more hostile to gun regulation than it has ever been before. There is little doubt about where eight of the justices stand. The court's four liberals have generally deferred to gun regulations, while four of the court's conservatives have adamantly questioned most regulations. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch such have all written or signed on to dissenting opinions, suggesting that they view the right to bear arms as a fundamental right, much like the right to free speech - not an absolute right, but close.

Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh, as a lower court judge, expressed a similar view. In a lengthy dissenting opinion, he strenuously disagreed with his colleagues when they upheld a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the District of Columbia. He said then, quote, "it is not for judges to weigh public safety in evaluating whether a gun law is constitutional. Weapons should be permissible if they are in common use today and have not been traditionally banned."

That leaves just one member of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts, whose views are unknown. A decade ago, he was among the five justices to strike down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia. But since then, he's said nothing more about where to draw the line when governments enact gun regulations in the name of public safety. Ultimately, his vote in this and other gun cases in the future will likely be decisive. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.