A groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on Monday that extends the right to own a gun could usher in a new chapter in the battle over gun control — and has opened up a fresh line of potential questions for opponents of Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s latest nominee to the nation’s highest court.
The court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments, based on cases challenging laws in Chicago and suburban Oak Park, Ill., that effectively banned the possession of handguns.
In its written opinion, the majority suggested Monday’s ruling is a logical extension of a 2008 decision declaring that the right to bear arms is an individual one. But the justices did not offer precise guidance on how broadly that right applies and whether any particular kind of gun regulations might be unconstitutional.
Gun-control advocates warn the decision could lead to new outbreaks of violence, particularly in crime-ravaged poor and minority communities. Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, argued it would actually help increase the safety of those residents.
“If, as petitioners believe, their safety and the safety of other law-abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials,” Alito wrote.
Experts anticipate the ruling will unleash a wave of lawsuits challenging gun possession ordinances in cities and states across the country, placing it near the top of the Supreme Court’s agenda.
“Today’s decision completes the shift of the gun rights battle from the legislatures to the courts, mirroring the seismic shift in the abortion rights battleground following Roe v. Wade,” said Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice, which supports the rights of gun owners.
The court split along its usual ideological lines: The court’s more conservative justices — John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — voted to extend gun rights, while Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor voted to hold the line against such arguments.
But pro-gun activists are crying foul because they believe Sotomayor — Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee and a former prosecutor — reneged on pro-Second Amendment statements she made during her confirmation hearings last year. They warned to expect the same thing from Kagan, whose Senate confirmation hearings began Monday.
Asked about gun control last year, Sotomayor said, “One of my godchildren is a member of the NRA. And I have friends who hunt. I understand the individual right fully that the Supreme Court recognized” in previous rulings upholding the amendment. “I understand that how important the right to bear arms is to many, many Americans.”