An individual gun right.
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual, not just a collective, right to gun ownership. The fact that a ruling by the high court was needed on this essential point, 217 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, is a clear sign that the wording of the Second Amendment is ambiguous. The Oregon Constitution, in contrast, is a model of clarity. A gun-control law like the District of Columbia's, which the court struck down last week, would not survive a challenge in Oregon.
The Second Amendment is the only part of the Bill of Rights that has an introductory clause: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state... ." That clause has long been held to mean that the right to keep and bear arms belongs to the militia, not individual citizens. Before last week, the most important legal precedent came when the Supreme Court upheld the National Firearms Act of 1934 against a challenge on grounds that it violated the Second Amendment. But now the court has ruled 5-4 that the D.C. law that effectively banned handgun ownership overstepped the Second Amendment's guarantee of individual gun rights.
The language in Oregon's Constitution would not have allowed such an important question to go unresolved for so long. Section 27 of Article 1, the Bill of Rights, is entitled "Right to bear arms; military subordinate to civilian power." The section reads, "The people shall have the right to bear arms for the defence [sic] of themselves, and the State, but the Military shall be kept in strict subordination to the civil power."
In Oregon, the people's right is spelled out before the matter of civilian and military power comes up, making it harder to argue that the right of gun ownership is dependent on such collective institutions as militias or the military.
Even where the right to own firearms is clear, however, it is not absolute. In its ruling on the D.C. case, the Supreme Court said it would be permissible to forbid gun ownership by such people as felons or the mentally ill, to ban guns from such places as schools or government buildings, and to enact restrictions on concealed weapons.
Though the Oregon Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms more clearly, it also permits restrictions. The state Supreme Court has specifically upheld a law prohibiting gun ownership by felons. Oregon voters have approved laws requiring that handgun purchasers be subject to background checks. A state trial judge recently rejected a Medford teacher's demand that she be allowed to carry a concealed firearm at her school. Last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggests that these restrictions would pass federal muster as well.
Oregon's Constitution is not unique - in 38 states, citizens' right to keep and bear arms is constitutionally protected to some degree. Yet restrictions on guns - the age and background of purchasers, the type and caliber of weapons, the places where firearms may be discharged or carried - are commonplace. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling brings federal law more closely into alignment with the laws in most states.
Last week's decision may have been momentous in finding an individual right in the Second Amendment - but it will have little effect in Oregon, where more clearly worded constitutional language has allowed gun rights and restrictions to be settled more easily.