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. US top court upholds right to own guns, rejects handgun ban

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) June 26, 2008
The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that individual Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms, ending a ban on owning handguns in the capital in its first ruling on gun rights in 70 years.

The court's 5-4 landmark decision -- on whether the right to keep and bear arms is an individual or collective right -- said the city's law violated the second amendment of the US constitution which the justices said guaranteed citizens the right to keep guns at home for self-defense.

"There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the second amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the court's decision.

He added the court took seriously the problem of handgun violence in cities like Washington and said there were "a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns."

"The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home," the court ruled.

President George W. Bush welcomed the ruling, saying he strongly agreed with the court's "historic decision."

The ruling was a victory for gun rights advocates, but gun control proponents said it would help their cause by endorsing the regulation of firearms.

The high court had never before issued a precise ruling on the interpretation of the second amendment, which states: "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."

Washington, home to the White House and the US administration, has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.

Private possession of handguns is strictly banned here, and any rifles or shotguns must be kept unloaded in homes or under a trigger lock.

City officials argued the ban, instituted in 1976, was necessary to stem rising gun violence, and that the second amendment protected gun rights for people associated with militias, not individuals.

The case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, was originally brought in 2003 by a federal building guard who carries a handgun on duty and wanted to keep it in his home for self-defense.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the right to own guns was "not unlimited" and that its decision did not cast doubt on laws prohibiting convicted federal criminals or mentally-ill patients from keeping guns.

Bans on concealed weapons or on carrying firearms in sensitive places such as schools or government buildings remained legal, it said.

"This gun decision is a breath of fresh air from the US Supreme Court," said Jessica Echard of the conservative group Eagle Forum.

"The majority of Americans see the absurdity of gun control and recognize the valuable self-defense function of guns."

But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the ruling made clear that "the constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on access to dangerous weapons."

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said the ruling was restricted to handguns in homes and did not prevent the city from strictly regulating or banning other types of firearms.

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama welcomed the decision, saying the court had endorsed "the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures."

But he came under fire from Republican rival John McCain who accused him of changing his position over the years.

"Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today's ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right -- sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly," McCain said in a statement.

The McCain campaign released a memo setting out how Obama had, in 1996, expressed support for a ban on the manufacture and sale of handguns but by this year, had equivocated on whether the Washington ban was constitutional.

The Supreme Court last took up the issue in 1939, but its ruling then referred to alleged bank robbers and the registration of certain firearms.

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