WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gets to write on a blank slate when it takes up the meaning of the Second Amendment "right to keep and bear arms” and the District of Columbia's ban on handguns. The nine justices have said almost nothing about gun rights, and their predecessors have likewise given no definitive answer to whether the Constitution protects an individual's right to own guns or whether that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia. The case that will be argued today is among the most closely watched of the term, drawing 68 briefs from outside groups. Most of those support an individual's right to own a gun. "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to interpret an important provision of our Constitution unencumbered by precedent,” said Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett.
What's at stake?Even if they determine there is an individual right, the justices still will have to decide whether the capital's 32-year-old handgun ban can stand and how to evaluate other gun control laws. The local Washington government argues that its law should be allowed to remain in force whether or not the amendment applies to individuals, although it reads the amendment as intended to allow states to have armed forces. The City Council that adopted the ban said it was justified because "handguns have no legitimate use in the purely urban environment of the District of Columbia.” Dick Anthony Heller, 65, an armed security guard, sued the District after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his home — about a mile from the court — for protection. His lawyers say the amendment plainly protects an individual's right. The 27 words and three enigmatic commas of the Second Amendment have been analyzed again and again by legal scholars, but hardly at all by the Supreme Court. The last Supreme Court ruling on the topic came in 1939 in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a sawed-off shotgun. Constitutional scholars disagree over what that case means but agree it did not squarely answer the question of individual versus collective rights. Heller lost his suit in U.S. District Court in Washington. By a 2-1 vote, a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the handgun ban. Notably, it was the first appeals court to strike down a gun control law on the basis of an individual's Second Amendment rights.
What's the effect?Barnett is among those on both sides of the issue who believe the practical effect of the court's ruling will be limited. Forty-four state constitutions contain some form of gun rights, which are not affected by the court's consideration of Washington's restrictions. "There is almost no other enacted gun law that would be threatened by this case,” Barnett said. The case is Heller v. District of Columbia, 07-290.
Broadcasting obscenitiesThe Supreme Court will again be weighing political punishment for dirty words, this time involving undeleted expletives. On Monday, in a nod to the Bush administration, the high court agreed to consider whether broadcasters can be disciplined for airing "fleeting” obscenities. The First Amendment conflict becomes the latest case pitting free speech rights against government efforts to protect innocent ears. Broadcasters say they should not face discipline for obscenities uttered in passing. The Bush administration supports a Federal Communications Commission rule imposed after Bono and Cher swore briefly in separate appearances. From Wire Services