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Gun rights at center stage.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Just in time for the 2008 campaign, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that will place handgun owners' rights at the heart of the nation's political debate.

The case, to be decided by next summer, provides an opportunity to clarify what the Second Amendment really means. While the court isn't likely to settle the nation's long-running debate over gun control, it could bolster the legitimacy of reasonable efforts to protect public safety through certain types of firearms restrictions.

The case comes from Washington, D.C., where a 31-year-old ordinance bans the ownership of handguns. The law allows possession of rifles and shotguns, provided they are disassembled or equipped with trigger locks. Six city residents challenged the ordinance as unconstitutional.

Last March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled 2-1 in the challengers' favor, finding that the Second Amendment protects the civil rights of individuals rather than delineating the regulatory powers of states.

The appeals court's decision was a departure from the precedent that had guided most federal courts since 1939, when the Supreme Court upheld the National Firearms Act of 1934 against a constitutional challenge. In that case, the high court let stand a registration requirement for sawed-off shotguns. And in 1982, the Supreme Court sanctioned a city ordinance in Morton Grove, Ill., that prohibited residents from keeping firearms at home.

Yet the legal and political fight over gun control laws rages on, fueled in large part by the problematic wording of the Second Amendment: "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." Gun control advocates focus on the first half of the amendment, which speaks of a state and its militia, while gun rights groups stress the second, which speaks of the people's rights.

Neither half can be ignored. In Marbury vs. Madison, the 1803 case that established the Supreme Court's authority to interpret the Constitution, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that "It cannot be presumed that any clause in the Constitution is intended to be without effect." Among the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, only the Second Amendment has an introductory clause - and it had to have been included for a purpose.

Read in its entirety, the Second Amendment clearly protects the right of states to form citizen militias, the equivalent of today's National Guard, in contrast to the British standing army against which the American colonists rebelled.

But that's not all the Second Amendment says. Its reference to "the people" is echoed in the First, Fourth and Ninth amendments, and in each case the phrase applies to individuals, not the states. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison, a principal architect of the Bill of Rights, praised "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation." If the founders had meant only to permit state militias, they would have said so.

Instead, the Second Amendment, like much else in the Constitution, can be presumed to be the product of compromise, with deliberate ambiguities permitting agreement among dissenting factions.

Even if the Second Amendment is interpreted as applying mainly to the people rather than the states, however, the right to keep and bear arms is not absolute. Just as the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech can be restricted by laws against obscenity or libel, the Second Amendment can permit prohibitions against the ownership of bazookas. The question is how far such limits can go.

It's possible that the Supreme Court will address that question in so narrow a fashion that it remains unanswered. A broad affirmation of precedent, however, would be welcome, so that states and cities can be confident of their ability to protect public safety through reasonable firearms restrictions.

The ambiguities of the Second Amendment always will remain, but the court can provide citizens and governments an up-to-date means of threading their way through them.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; The Supreme Court has a chance to provide clarity
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 23, 2007
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