WASHINGTON — For more than 30 years, handguns have been banned in the nation's capital. Residents here can own shotguns and rifles, but they have to be unloaded and either disassembled or fixed with a trigger lock.
On Tuesday, U.S. Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments about whether the District of Columbia's gun laws violate the Second Amendment.
The awkward construction of the amendment — linking "a well regulated Militia” to "the right ... to keep and bear Arms” — has spawned decades of debate about whether the framers of the Constitution meant to grant an individual right to own guns.
The last time the U.S. Supreme Court took up a case that addressed the meaning of the Second Amendment was in 1939, but that decision has been used by both sides in the gun control debate in recent years to support their positions.
Last year, the federal appeals court here struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns and other gun-related ordinances, stating unequivocally that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms.
"When we look at the Bill of Rights as a whole, the setting of the Second Amendment reinforces its individual nature,” the appeals court said. "The Bill of Rights was almost entirely a declaration of individual rights, and the Second Amendment's inclusion therein strongly indicates that it, too, was intended to protect personal liberty.”
The District of Columbia appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up what is expected to be an historic decision sometime this summer.
Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett said last week that the D.C. gun case "may be one of the only cases in our lifetime in which the U.S. Supreme Court will be called upon to interpret the meaning of a fundamental provision of the Constitution ... to define the original meaning of the Second Amendment.”
Oklahoman was subject of earlier case
The Second Amendment case taken by the Supreme Court in 1939 involved an Oklahoma bank robber named Jack Miller. He and another Claremore resident, Frank Layton, were arrested in Arkansas for carrying an unregistered, sawed-off shotgun in their car.
The two were charged under a federal law called the National Firearms Act with transporting an unregistered, sawed-off shotgun across state lines; the act required that type of weapon, as well as machine guns, to be registered and taxed.
A federal judge in Arkansas dismissed the case against the men, saying the federal law violated the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court heard an appeal from the U.S. government, which defended the firearms act, but Miller didn't have enough money to pay for a lawyer, so only the government's side was argued.
The high court ruled for the government, saying, "In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.