Supreme Court rulings limit options of gun-control task force


McClatchy Newspapers

The Obama administration’s high-level gun-control task force, established Wednesday, will be navigating tricky legal terrain reshaped by Supreme Court conservatives.

Some state and local gun-control measures already have died over the past four and a half years, done in by the high court’s 2008 ruling that recognized expansive constitutional protections for firearm ownership. Similar Second Amendment restraints will limit the ambitions of the Obama gun task force and its Capitol Hill counterparts.

“The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside,” Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted in a ruling last week.

Some additional gun restrictions, however, certainly will survive legal challenge. The Supreme Court has said that “laws imposing conditions and qualifications” on firearms sales may be permitted. This might allow, for instance, more background-check requirements. The court further indicated in 2008 that “an important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms” extends to “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

That might include military firearms such as the M16 assault rifle, which the Supreme Court specifically cited. Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six women last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., used a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle, a civilian version of the M16.

The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, however, has confining power. Posner’s ruling last week underscored that. His opinion struck down an Illinois law that prohibited most individuals from carrying firearms in public. An outspoken conservative intellectual, Posner previously had criticized Justice Antonin Scalia’s reasoning in the high court’s decision. Like it or not, though, judges now must abide by it.

Or, as Posner put it, “the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment . . . compels us” to strike down the Illinois law.

“If the government is going to intrude on a fundamental right, they are going to have to have a compelling governmental interest and the law will have to be fitted to achieve those ends,” San Jose, Calif., attorney Donald Kilmer said in an interview. He represents the Calguns Foundation, a California advocacy group for firearms owners, in lawsuits challenging gun laws.

Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA Law School who’s written a lot about the Second Amendment, said in an interview Wednesday that he was skeptical about the effectiveness of any new federal gun-control measure, though he thinks a number of federal proposals could survive constitutional challenge. But with California lawmakers now considering proposals such as a first-of-its-kind requirement to obtain ammunition licenses, he added that some politicians might intrude too far into protected territory.

“I’m more concerned at the state level,” Volokh said.

Other laws, too, have fallen in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the landmark gun-rights case known as District of Columbia v. Heller. The ruling, which struck down Washington’s sweeping ban on handguns, applied to federal jurisdictions. A subsequent Supreme Court ruling in 2010 extended the Second Amendment reasoning to limit what states and localities can do, a constitutional step called incorporation.

“The Second Amendment right will to some extent limit the legislative freedom of the states, but this is always true when a Bill of Rights provision is incorporated,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the 2010 case.

Last March, for instance, a federal judge relied on the Supreme Court’s guidance to strike down Maryland’s requirement that individuals show a “good and substantial reason” that they should obtain state gun permits. An appellate court blocked Chicago last year from banning gun ranges within city limits. Last March, a federal judge struck down Massachusetts’ denial of firearms licenses to permanent legal aliens.

“The possibility that some resident aliens are unsuited to possess a handgun does not justify a wholesale ban,” U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock reasoned.

At the same time, courts have recognized limits even in constitutionally protected rights. In 2010, an appellate court upheld a federal law that prohibits ownership of guns with rubbed-out serial numbers. Last year, a conservative Republican on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote a decision upholding Washington’s ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

“The prohibition of semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines does not effectively disarm individuals or substantially affect their ability to defend themselves,” said Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

Read more Politics Wires stories from the Miami Herald

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama greets supporters before speaking on the economy at the Milwaukee Laborfest in Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee. The last time President Barack Obama came to Wisconsin to celebrate workers' rights on Labor Day, there was barely a hint of the turmoil that was to come just months later as public employees fought unsuccessfully to retain their ability to collectively bargain. Now, four years later, as the architect of the law that stripped unions of that power faces re-election, Obama is coming back to Milwaukee for an event also featuring Gov. Scott Walker's Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

    Obama promoting economic gains as elections near

    Boosted by recent economic gains, President Barack Obama is sounding more bullish about the nation's recovery from the Great Recession and the White House is encouraging Democrats to show similar optimism as they head into the November mid-term elections.

This June 18, 2014 file photo shows Iowa Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The first midterm elections since both parties embraced a historic change in campaign finance, and with it a sea of campaign cash, will mean for most voters an avalanche of television ads trying to reach the few able to be swayed and willing to vote. In the nation's closest races for U.S. Senate, that translates into "price per vote" that could easily double what was spent in the 2012 presidential election.

    Brace yourselves: Campaign cash buying tons of ads

    Iowa's airwaves are already jammed with political ads, most of them negative, in one of the Senate races nationwide that will decide which party claims the majority.

FILE - This June 17, 2014, file photo shows President Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) fundraiser gala in Gotham Hall, in New York. His name won't be on the ballot, but Obama will shape the midterm elections like no other. For Republicans, he is a punch line who fires up conservatives and reaches dissatisfied independents. And some Democrats won't even mention his name. It's left Obama able to do little more than raise money ahead of an election that will define how he spends his final two years in office.

    Obama seeks to do no harm to Democrats in midterms

    Hampered by low approval ratings and an unfriendly electoral map, President Barack Obama enters the fall campaign as a liability to some vulnerable Democrats and a target for Republicans trying to fire up conservatives and appeal to disillusioned independents.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category