Tuesday, March 18, 2008

US Supreme Court in historic hearing on gun laws

by Kerry Sheridan
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The right of Americans to keep guns will be tested in the Supreme Court for the first time in seven decades when it hears a challenge over the US capital's restrictions on gun ownership.

The conservative-leaning court's decision on the case is expected to have a far-reaching impact on laws on the use and control of guns, an emotional issue that has long divided Americans.

Since 1939, the court has not ruled on the interpretation of the second amendment to the US constitution, which states: "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."

While many Americans hold that this guarantees them an absolute right to personally own guns, Washington DC has held to a different interpretation that underpins some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.

In the US capital, private ownership of handguns is banned, and rifles or shotguns must be kept in homes disassembled or under a trigger lock.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, argue that the DC gun ban violates the second amendment.

But Washington officials say the ban, instituted in 1976, is necessary to keep street violence and murder rates down, and that the second amendment only protects gun rights for people associated with militias, not individuals.

"I'm confident in our case, and our continued ability to protect residents from gun violence," said Mayor Adrian Fenty upon filing his legal team's brief earlier this month.

Alan Gura, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, questioned the crime fighting impact of the city's laws, saying they have "accomplished nothing except to prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms."

Interest in the landmark case, originally brought in 2003 by a federal building guard who carries a handgun on duty and wanted to keep it at home for self-defense, has built around the country.

There has been a rash of "friend of the court" amicus briefs filed on both sides. These allow interested parties who are not directly related to the case to argue their positions.

Supporters of gun rights include groups as varied as Pink Pistols and Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

"More anti-gay hate crimes occur in the home than in any other location," the Pink Pistols said in their brief, which says guns should be allowed in homes for self-defense purposes.

On the other side, law enforcement groups, the American Bar Association, US mayors and coalitions against domestic violence argue that easy access to handguns causes murder rates to rise.

"Women are killed by intimate partners -- husbands, lovers, ex-husbands or ex-lovers -- more often than by any other category of killer," said a brief by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, adding that such killings were the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 15-45.

The US government itself is divided on the issue, with the Justice Department siding with the city and law enforcement, and Vice President Dick Cheney signing onto a brief calling for the Washington gun ban to be overturned.

Gun rights advocates believe that momentum is in their favor.

"The overwhelming weight of the evidence and opinion is that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is an individual right," said Randy Barnett, legal expert at Georgetown University.

If the Supreme Court rules that constitution protects an individual right to own guns, the American Bar Association predicts a far-reaching effect on the ability of governments to restrict gun carrying among citizens.

"Separating the right to bear arms from the maintenance of a well-regulated militia would cast doubt on the authority of state and local governments to regulate firearms," the ABA said.

The Supreme Court last took up the issue in 1939, but its ruling on a case involving alleged bank robbers and registration of certain firearms did not directly address the question of the individual versus collective right to bear arms.

A decision in the case is not expected until June.