Supreme Court to Take Up Landmark Gun-Control Case

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday on a landmark gun- control case, McDonald v. Chicago, on whether cities and states have the right to ban handguns.

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday takes up another landmark gun rights case, this time examining whether the constitutional right of individuals to keep and bear arms extends to every city and town in the nation.

The case, Otis McDonald v. City of Chicago, challenges a citywide ban on the possession of handguns.

In June 2008, the court struck down a similar handgun ban in Washington, D.C., declaring that the constitution's Second Amendment protects a right of individuals to have commonly available firearms - including handguns - in their home for self defense. (For Monitor coverage of that decision, click here.)

The decision applied to the federal government and to federal enclaves such as the District of Columbia. But it remained unclear whether the holding would also apply to state and local governments.

That's the key question in McDonald v. Chicago.

At issue is whether the protections of the Second Amendment apply to gun-control measures passed by state and local governments. If they do, Chicago's handgun ban may go the way of Washington's ban.

But first the justices must decide whether the Second Amendment applies to the states, or whether it remains one of the few areas in the Bill of Rights that binds only the national government.

It is no small question. In examining the issue, the justices must go back to the founding era and the debates over passage of the Bill of Rights. After that, they must go back to a watershed moment in American history after the Civil War, when the 14th Amendment was passed in an effort to protect and empower freed slaves in the South.

Constitutional controversy 150 years in the making

The Chicago gun case is forcing the justices to confront a constitutional controversy that has dogged the Supreme Court for nearly a century and a half.

The Bill of Rights was originally conceived and written as a check on national power, a protection to the states and their residents that the federal government would be powerless to infringe certain fundamental rights. But after the Civil War, members of Congress worked for ratification of the 14th Amendment, which seemed by its text to extend the protections of the Bill of Rights to state residents - including freed slaves - facing infringement of those rights by state governments.

The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, accomplished this by declaring that anyone born in the US was a US citizen. The Amendment added: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Those 51 words formed the backbone of what would become the American civil rights movement. There was just one problem: Not everyone supported such a radical reorganization of constitutional protections - including a majority of the members of the Supreme Court. …