WASHINGTON - Silent on central questions of gun control for two centuries, the Supreme Court found its voice Thursday in a decision affirming the right to have guns for self-defense in the home and addressing a constitutional riddle almost as old as the republic over what it means to say the people may keep and bear arms.
The court's 5-4 ruling struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns and imperiled similar prohibitions in other cities, Chicago and San Francisco among them. Federal gun restrictions, however, were expected to remain largely intact.
The court's historic awakening on the meaning of the Second Amendment brought a curiously mixed response, muted in some unexpected places.
The reaction broke less along party lines than along the divide between cities wracked with gun violence and rural areas where gun ownership is embedded in daily life. Democrats have all but abandoned their long push for stricter gun laws at the national level after deciding it's a losing issue for them. Republicans welcomed what they called a powerful precedent.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said merely that the court did not find an unfettered right to bear arms and that the ruling 'will provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.' But another Chicagoan, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, called the ruling 'very frightening' and predicted more violence and higher taxes to pay for extra police if his city's gun restrictions are lost.
The court had not conclusively interpreted the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791. The amendment reads: '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.'
The basic issue for the justices was whether the amendment protects an individual's right to own guns no matter what, or whether that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia, a once-vital, now-archaic grouping of citizens. That's been the heart of the gun control debate for decades.
The answer: Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that an individual right to bear arms exists and is supported by 'the historical narrative' both before and after the Second Amendment was adopted.
President Bush said: 'I applaud the Supreme Court's historic decision today confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear firearms.'
The full implications of the decision, however, are not sorted out. Still to be seen, for example, is the extent to which the right to have a gun for protection in the home may extend outside the home.
Scalia said the Constitution does not permit 'the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.' The court also struck down D.C. requirements that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or kept disassembled, but left intact the licensing of guns.