Case spotlights gun rights versus public safety

Should private citizens own military-style weapons?
Should private citizens own military-style weapons?

    The U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to hear a challenge to an Illinois city’s ban on assault weapons.

     In Highland Park, Illinois, it is illegal to possess, sell or manufacture military-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. The city’s website characterized the decision as “a resounding victory for the City of Highland Park and the safety of its residents.”
     The case stemmed from a complaint filed by a resident, backed by the Illinois State Rifle Association, challenging the law, saying it violated Second Amendment rights. Courts that took up the case upheld the city’s right to ban the weapons.   
     The case is getting attention in the wake of yet another mass shooting involving assailants armed with assault-type weapons, this time in San Bernardino, California. But for years, gun control advocates and pro-gun lobbyists have argued about whether there should be limits on weapon ownership. Here is the context:
  • The first 10 amendments to the Constitution were ratified December 15, 1791. They form the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment says this: “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.”
  • Guns in the Colonies:  In the 18th century, the military used muskets. On a video posted on Learn NC, a website of the University of North Carolina School of Education, a re-enactor manages to load and fire a musket in five seconds. A farmer of the time would have used a rifle -- which would have taken longer to load -- for hunting. (Watch the video on LearnNC.)
  • Guns now: Guns have changed dramatically since the Second Amendment was written and are now faster and more deadly. This is particularly true of popular military and assault-style weapons. Among the most notable incidents involving assault rifles: the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012. A report by the state’s Office of the Child Advocate, concluded, “within 8 minutes the shooter had killed, with an AR-15, twenty children ages 6 and 7, and six school personnel: the school principal, psychologist, teachers, and teachers’ assistants.
  • The Second Amendment refers to the “militia.” While we don’t use the word "militia" today, the National Guard traces its roots to state militias. Indeed, in celebrating its anniversary in 2012, the National Guard’s website pointed to its roots in the state militias: “The military organization we know today as the National Guard came into existence with a direct declaration on December 13, 1636. On this date, the Massachusetts General Court in Salem, for the first time in the history of the North American continent, established that all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to join the militia.”
  • Does the Second Amendment mean that just militias (the National Guard) have the right to bear arms or that individuals also have the right to bear arms?  This question has been argued back and forth by gun rights and gun control advocates. In a 2008 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Washington, D.C.'s prohibition on handgun possession violated the Second Amendment. The decision states, "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." While that was the majority opinion, not all justices agreed. In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the amendment was "adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several states to main­tain a well-regulated militia. ...Specifically, there is no indication that the framers of the amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution."
  • The 2008 decision made clear that there are limits. That same decision also said this:Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. ... The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”



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