WASHINGTON -- By striking down the District of Columbia's extraordinarily strict gun control law, which essentially bans guns, a federal appeals court may have revived gun control as a political issue. It has been mostly dormant since autumn 2000, when Al Gore decided he was less interested in it than in carrying states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania: "Gore Tables Gun Issue As He Courts Midwest" (The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2000). The appeals court ruling appalls advocates of gun control laws, and should alarm the Democratic Party.
The court ruled 2-1 that D.C.'s law, which allows only current and retired police officers to have handguns in their homes, violates the Constitution's Second Amendment: "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."
This ruling probably will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which 68 years ago seemed to hold that the amendment's first 13 words circumscribe the force of the rest. That is, there is a constitutionally protected right to "keep and bear" guns only insofar as the keeping and bearing are pertinent to service in state-run militias.
In 2000, advocates of stringent gun control thought they had won their argument with historical evidence when an Emory University historian, Michael Bellesiles, published ``Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.'' This book, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize, the most coveted honor for American history scholarship, argued that when the Second Amendment was written, guns were not widely owned or reliable enough to be important. Therefore the amendment was written to protect only the rights of states, not of individuals.
Before long, however, other scholars argued that much of Bellesiles' "research" consisted of meretricious uses of, fabrication of, or disregard of, evidence. And in 1989, Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas Law School had written in a Yale Law Journal article, "The Embarrassing Second Amendment," that the amendment's language, properly read, is an embarrassment to those who favor whittling away the amendment's protection of the individuals' right to own guns.
He noted that if James Madison, the foremost shaper of the Constitution, and his colleagues in the First Congress intended the Second Amendment to protect only the states' rights to maintain militias, the amendment could have simply said: "Congress shall have no power to prohibit state militias." Or as Virginia's George Mason, who opposed ratification of the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights, said, "Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people."