The Supreme Court ruled on Monday, June 28, in a challenge to Chicago’s gun-control law, that Americans in all 50 states have a constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense. Gun-rights supporters are ecstatic about the decision. The floodgates are now open for lawsuits challenging state and local gun-control laws nationwide. But based on what the majority actually said, it seems likely that many of these challenges will fail. (See photos of “Open Carry” gun-law advocates.)
This week, the court answered a technical question about its 2008 ruling, concerning whether the federal right it recognized (the District of Columbia is on federal land) also applied to the 50 states. By another 5-4 vote, the court said it does.
While the court’s five-member conservative majority has been bold about declaring a Second Amendment right to have a gun, it has been less than clear about which gun-control laws violate that right. In fact, the court did not actually strike down Chicago’s law, which is effectively a near ban on the possession of handguns by private citizens. It simply asked a lower court to take another look at it. (See pictures of the history of the AK-47.)
In both the Chicago and D.C. cases, the Supreme Court focused narrowly on people’s rights to use guns to protect themselves in their own homes. The court emphasized that it was not casting doubt on many kinds of gun regulations — including prohibitions on gun possession by felons and the mentally ill, laws keeping guns away from schools and government buildings and laws imposing restrictions like waiting periods on the sale of guns.
That still leaves a sizable gray area. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissent, the court has not given any real guidance on whether the right to be armed extends outside the house, whether it includes the right to use a semiautomatic weapon or what registration laws are permissible.
These are some of the issues lawyers will be fighting over. And despite all of the celebration by pro-gun forces, it is far from clear that they will win when the battle turns to specific gun-control measures. Perhaps that’s why supporters of gun control were notably upbeat when the ruling came down. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence declared that it “does not prevent elected representatives from enacting commonsense gun laws.” Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago said his city has already begun crafting a law that will withstand constitutional challenge — by, for instance, focusing it on gun registration, background checks, requirements for gun owners to get training and perhaps requirements to carry insurance. (See pictures of gun culture in America.)
The stakes in this battle are extremely high. Pro-gun advocates have done a good job of trumpeting the rights of people to carry firearms. But less attention is given these days to the right not to be put into danger by guns. More than 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by guns every year, according to the Brady Center. By some estimates, the Chicago gun-control law that is now in jeopardy has saved as many as 1,000 lives since it was enacted in the early 1980s.
Pro-gun groups try to create the impression that the vast majority of Americans support greater gun rights. But the will of the people has long favored some kind of gun control. A CBS–New York Times poll in April found that 40% of Americans thought gun-control laws should be more strict, while 42% thought they should be kept as they are. Just 16% said they should be less strict. All 50 states have gun regulations, and the Chicago and D.C. laws were enacted by democratically elected governments.