High court aims low
The newly minted right to handguns in the home also comes with legal loopholes to exploit.
As any city mayor might note, murder by firearm is likely to continue apace despite last week's Supreme Court ruling granting a right to keep a handgun in one's home. The decision, it turns out after close reading, scores a legal point while leaving many opportunities for government to restrict gun ownership.
In striking down a District of Colombia gun ban, the high court's 5-to-4 majority decided to run in two directions at once.
In a bold stroke that defies two centuries of laws, the justices found the Second Amendment allows "law-abiding, responsible citizens" to possess handguns"in defense of hearth and home." The ruling ends a debate over whether the amendment applies only to militias and not to individuals.
But then, almost by way of apology and recognition that more than 80 Americans die by guns every day, the court wisely offered ways to limit this newly minted right. "We do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia. The ruling endorses prior decisions prohibiting gun possession by felons and the mentally ill, and laws that license gun ownership, require training, restrict gun sales, and bar guns in public places.
But before lawmakers use these openings to consider new gun restrictions, they will need to comb this ruling for legal hurdles. Here are a few likely "tests" the high court may impose in future cases:
Kid test: This ruling also overturned the District's requirement that guns in homes have trigger locks, saying they hinder self-defense. But Justice Scalia also suggests gun owners take time to dial 911 during a face off with a burglar. Why not now allow locks that are quick for adults to undo but still too complex for curious children?
Location test: The decision is limited only to gun defense in the home. But it also talks of "lawful defense of self, family, and property." New gun laws will need to push courts to narrowly define home. Can the homeless own guns? Can one's car be considered a home?
Popularity test: The ruling applies only to handguns because they are "the most popular weapon ... for self-defense in the home." But what if machine guns become popular? Governments must restrict such weapons now before they pass a court test as popular.Death-of-innocents test: The ruling nods to restrictions on rights, such as one on the First Amendment that bars yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater because of potential loss of life. Lawmakers might now argue that rules on guns in the home are justified because such guns are 12 times more likely to be involved in the killing or injury of a member of the household than used against an intruder.
Character test: The ruling allows government to deny a gun license to those "disqualified." But it is not clear if this bars a license to those who have committed nonviolent crimes, such as passing bad checks. Lawmakers should now raise the bar on the type of background needed for a person to own a gun.
This new gun right is not absolute. Nor does it justify gun ownership as necessary to repel repressive government, as gun advocates would like. Lawmakers must act soon to take advantage of loopholes in this ambiguous ruling.