The debate is over.
No more arguing over the meaning of commas or engaging in semantic minutiae over the definition of militia.
The June 26 Supreme Court decision to strike down the Washington D.C. handgun ban in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller clearly established the right to bear arms as an individual right guaranteed by the Constitution’s Second Amendment.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia summerized the court’s decision: “We hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense. Assuming that Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of Second Amendment rights, the District must permit him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.”
Citing legal and historical precedent, the court went on to define the Second Amendment as an individual right unrelated to service in a militia or in the armed forces.
Despite clarifying the definition of the amendment and defeating D.C.’s handgun prohibition, the five to four decision left lingering questions in states where handgun violence is a serious problem – sparking new debate over the ability of state and local governments to enact restrictions on federally guaranteed rights and raising fears of unintended consequences for law enforcement.
Although Scalia struck down the D.C. handgun ban, he defended the necessity of “reasonable restrictions” on gun ownership.
New York City has some of the strictest gun ownership regulations in the country, according to Thomas King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.
“I think they’re unreasonable,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult to get a rifle and shotgun permit and near impossible to get a handgun permit.”
It costs $434.25 to apply for a handgun license in the City, including a $340 application fee and a $94.25 fingerprint fee. The New York City Police Department says the licensing process typically takes three to six months.
King says the fees and processing time are inhibitive and that the NYPD is extremely selective in the licensing process.
But officials say the restrictions are a necessary and reasonable deterrent to keep guns off of the streets and out of the hands of criminals.
“Public safety and individual gun rights have nothing to do with each other,” King snapped back, citing statistics he said showed a majority of violent gun crimes being perpetrated by illegal gun owners.
While many agree that there’s nothing wrong with responsible gun ownership, even in the City, officials defend the state’s right to place rigorous, if perhaps inconvenient, controls to ensure guns don’t fall into the wrong hands.
The disagreement over what constitutes reasonable restrictions will spark an inevitable court confrontation between gun control and gun rights advocates here and elsewhere. But despite the looming threat of litigation, City officials are confident the laws will pass legal scrutiny.
“Here in New York, as long as there’s a rational basis, it will stand,” Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said of the state’s gun laws. “I don’t think Heller is going to impact it.”
Brown went on to say that the New York gun laws were further protected by another precedent cited in the Heller decision.
“While the Court has limited the authority of Congress to control guns, it importantly acknowledges that the Second Amendment applies only to the federal government, thus upholding the right of state and local governments to enact reasonable laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” Brown said.
He’s referring to Scalia’s citation of the United States v. Cruikshank, which concluded that the Second Amendment only applied to laws enacted by the federal government.
“United States v. Cruikshank, in the course of vacating the convictions of members of a white mob for depriving blacks of their right to keep and bear arms, held that the Second Amendment does not by its own force apply to anyone other than the Federal Government,” Scalia said in the ruling.
Although Brown is confident in the legality of the City’s handgun laws, he’s concerned that the ruling may have other consequences for law enforcement.
Caution: May Cause Side Effects
Despite apparently protecting states’ rights to regulate gun use, gun control advocates worry that extensive litigation may slow down the creation of new gun laws, and possibly cause some states to loosen their regulations in anticipation of civil suits.
And while New York remains steadfast in its gun control approach thus far, decisions by other states may negate the intent of its gun laws.
“Our concerns are twofold – the decision opens the door to further proliferation of guns and the decision will result in extensive litigation all across the country,” Brown said.
Brown and others in the City’s law enforcement community say loose gun laws in other states have had deadly consequences for New Yorkers.
A total of 5,913 illegal firearms were recovered in the City last year, according to a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Only 420, about 7 percent, of those guns were traced to purchases in New York State. More than 87 percent of the guns were traced out of state and nearly 4,900 of the guns recovered were pistols or revolvers – handguns.
Brown said that guns can be easily purchased in Southern states, which account for a majority of the guns smuggled into the City, via I-95, the “Iron Pipeline.”
“If you ease restrictions it’ll be easier to smuggle guns,” Brown said.
Murder is up 8.8 percent this year according to the NYPD, with a majority of the slayings committed with illegal handguns.
“Our bottom line is that we should be doing everything we can do to get illegal handguns off the street,” he said.
But Brown admitted it would be a while before we know the full impact of the decision.
That was one sentiment everyone could agree on.
“Only time is going to tell,” King said of the impact on future gun laws.