Monday, June 28, 2010

Supreme Court ruling may clear path for gun lobby to challenge restrictions

High court ruling could spur suits to weaken firearm laws

By Jake Grovum • STATELINE.ORG • June 28, 2010

WASHINGTON — When the Virginia legislature recently passed a bill allowing people to carry guns in bars as long as they have a permit, the move raised eyebrows in the state and across the country. Former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, had vetoed a similar bill in 2009. And this year, Virginia's association of police chiefs loudly urged the state's new governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, to veto the bill.

"We can fully expect that at some point in the future a disagreement that today would likely end up in a verbal confrontation, or a bar fight, will inevitably end with gunfire if you sign this legislation into law," Virginia Beach police Chief Jake Jacocks Jr. wrote in a letter to the governor.

McDonnell signed the bill anyway, one of more than a dozen pro-gun bills Virginia approved this year; the guns-in-bars law is set to take effect this week. It was one victory for gun rights advocates in what has been a fruitful year for them in state legislatures.

Tennessee lawmakers passed a law similar to Virginia's, over the veto of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Georgia lawmakers lifted a prohibition against drinking alcohol while carrying a gun in public and made it legal for people to carry guns in some areas of airports. And Indiana approved a measure allowing employees to take guns with them to work as long as they're kept out of sight in a locked vehicle on a company-owned parking lot.

This week, gun rights advocates may have even more to cheer about. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide a case that could open more state gun-control laws to legal challenges. The case, known as McDonald v. City of Chicago, will decide whether that city's complete ban on handguns violates its residents' Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Two years ago, the court decided that a similar law in the District of Columbia did violate the Second Amendment, and many legal experts expect the court to extend that precedent to state and local gun laws around the country.

More lawsuits likely
Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert at Stanford University Law School, is one of them.

"There's no question," he says, "that there will be a huge increase in lawsuits against lots of state and local laws."

Still, Weisberg points out that if the Supreme Court rules as expected, it's no guarantee that state and local gun laws will be thrown out. Both the D.C. and Chicago laws were quite draconian by nature — outright bans on certain guns in the cities — which made them more susceptible to a constitutional challenge.

Persuading a court to find that weaker regulations are in violation of a person's Second Amendment rights won't be an easy task.

In the legislatures this year, the most recent wave of action is part of a trend toward states' loosening gun laws in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. Some saw the return of a Democratic administration in Washington as a sign that gun control could once again become an issue of national political and legal significance.

There have also been hints of the states' rights sentiment that has fueled state lawsuits against the federal health-care overhaul, as well as anger toward Washington in general.

Not all states agree
Some advocates of stricter gun controls say the legislative damage hasn't been as bad as it might seem. Brian Malte, the state legislation and politics director at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says that while some states have moved in a more pro-gun direction, they're mostly states that already were considered gun-friendly. "They have been successful in some of these states," Malte says, "but it's the same states."

Malte points to states such as California, Illinois and much of the Northeast, where he says gun advocates have largely failed to make inroads. And gun-control advocates have played offense some this session, too.

In New York State, for example, the Assembly passed "microstamping" legislation before the bill stalled in the Senate, although supporters hope to revive it this fall. The bill would require that semi-automatic pistols made or sold in the state stamp cartridges with the make, model and serial number of the gun when it's fired.

CA bill bans 'open carry'
In California, the Assembly passed a bill that would ban the practice known as "open carry," which allows people to carry an unloaded gun in plain sight, even if the person also is carrying ammunition.

Still, gun rights advocates are feeling emboldened enough to try new tactics in the legislatures and the courts. Last year, Montana and Tennessee enacted a law called the Firearms Freedom Act, a measure that exempts guns and ammunition made, sold and used within the states from federal regulations.

This year, the same law was passed by six more states: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Advocates say the measure is a matter of states' rights. The federal government has no business regulating guns and ammunition that are not part of interstate commerce, they say.

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