By:  LINDSEY O'NEILL, ESQ.

An individual's right to own and posess a gun versus gun-control laws has been one of the most debated issues in our history.  On one side of the issue is an individual's right to own and possess guns under the Second Amendment's right to bear arms and an individual's right to self-defense.  On the other side is the issue of violence in our society and the thinking that gun-control laws are necessary to protect public safety.  The issue has not only been fervently debated amongst citizens, but has also been a difficult issue for the courts to decide.  Until now....

In 2008, the U. S. Supreme Court, in District of Columbia vs. Heller, struck down a Washington, D.C. law that banned firearms in the home, concluding that the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms gives citizens the right to own and possess guns in their homes for self-defense.  After the Heller case, residents of the city of Chicago filed suit in McDonald v. Chicago (June 2010) challening similar laws in Chicago which banned firearms and guns in a person's home.  The Chicago area cities claimed that their laws were constitutional because the Second Amendment didn't apply to the States.  After much litigation, ultimately the Supreme Court held in McDonald that the Second Amendment does in fact apply to the States and that federal, state or city laws banning an individual's right to own and posess a gun for self-defense are unconstitutional.

In the Heller and McDonald opinions, the Supreme Court discussed the origins of the right to bear arms in our country and found self-defense to be a fundamental right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present, and that individual self-defense is “the central component” of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.  After examining our history and the political reasoning behind the enactment of the Second Amendment, the Court concluded that citizens across the nation must be permitted to use handguns for self-defense.

At issue in the McDonald case was one of the strictest handgun laws as Chicago is known for being troubled with gun violence.  The court took note of the petitioner's situation:

“…Several of the Chicago petitioners have been the targets of threats and violence.  For instance, Otis McDonald, who is in his late seventies, lives in a high-crime neighborhood.  He is a community activist involved with alternative policing strategies, and his efforts to improve his neighborhood have subjected him to violent threats from drug dealers. ….  Colleen Lawson is a Chicago resident whose home has been targeted by burglars. 'In Mrs. Lawson’s judgment, possessing a handgun in Chicago would decrease her chances of suffering serious injury or death should she ever be threatened again in her home.' McDonald, Lawson, and the other Chicago petitioners own handguns that they store outside of the city limits, but they would like to keep their handguns in their homes for protection….”

It is important to note that, in deciding these cases, the Supreme Court did NOT hold that the Second Amendment right is unlimited.  Quoting from Heller, the Court noted: "[The Second Amendment] is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose:  For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the [Second] Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."  Rather, the Court limited its ruling to laws attempting to ban firearms in places "where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute."

Attorneys and legal scholars predict these cases are only the beginning of more gun-control and "right to bear arms" lawsuits and that hundreds of local gun bans are likely now in jeopardy.

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