Right to be armed


Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 6:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 6:03 p.m.

Ah, the irony: Cities can ban unfenced backyard swimming pools, front-yard parking and spitting on the sidewalk. But a deadly handgun? That's constitutionally protected.

The Supreme Court confirmed it last week, clarifying that most Americans are entitled to possess and legally use a firearm in their home. The 5-4 ruling was neither the best nor the worst it could have been. Guns can be regulated, suggested the majority opinion, but not too much. It indirectly supported existing restrictions on unusually

dangerous firearms, such as assault weapons.

The court's endorsement, which focused on a citizen's legitimate need for self-defense, was in no way a carte blanche for indiscriminate gun use. But the ruling was vague on just how much regulation would be constitutionally acceptable. Thus, in all likelihood, the justices ushered in a new wave of court challenges against gun controls.

Thursday's decision threw out Washington, D.C.'s, handgun ban, which the court said went too far in prohibiting guns at home. But more than this, the court answered a question that firearms advocates and foes have wrangled over for decades: Does the Second Amendment give individuals the right to have a gun, or is it to be read in the context of protecting society's ability to arm a militia to oppose tyranny?

The court majority, citing historical sources, discounted the militia aspect - a questionable conclusion, considering the wording of the amendment: "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."

The amendment, enigmatic at best, was not the Founding Fathers' finest work. Interpreting it for 21st century America - and 21st century weapons - posed an enormous challenge. This is no longer a land of muskets and subsistence hunting, after all. It's a nation where crime, much of it committed with the aid of a gun, is a tragic concern.

There is little consensus, in opinion or statistics, on the cause-and-effect relationship between the number of guns in this country and the number of homicides. Suffice it to say there are far too many of both.

"I'll give up my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers," says the famous bumper sticker. It's an attitude in line with various recent polls indicating that up to 72 percent of Americans embrace the idea of individual gun rights.

But Americans also support gun control, strongly. In a Washington Post poll, 60 percent of those surveyed nationally backed a strict ban on handguns and requirements for trigger locks. The respondents were almost evenly split as to whether gun controls or gun rights are more important.

Those numbers show the close, contentious nature of the struggle. The Supreme Court has now decided one fundamental aspect of the debate, but the battle - over licensing, weapons restrictions, availability and myriad other facets of this complex subject - continues.

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