WASHINGTON -- Two of Thursday's Supreme Court rulings -- both decided 5-4, and with the same alignment of justices -- concerned the Constitution's first two amendments. One ruling benefits Barack Obama by not reviving the dormant debate about gun control. The other embarrasses John McCain by underscoring discordance between his deeds and his promises.
The District of Columbia's gun control law essentially banned ownership of guns not kept at businesses and not disassembled or disabled by trigger locks, even guns for personal protection in the home. The issue in the case was: Does the Second Amendment "right of the people to keep and bear arms" guarantee an individual right? Or does the amendment's prefatory clause -- "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state" -- mean that the amendment guarantees only the right of a collectivity ("the people," embodied in militias) to "bear" arms in military contexts?
In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who believes that construing the Constitution should begin, and often end, with analysis of what the text meant to its authors, the court affirmed the individual right. Scalia cited the ancient British right -- deemed a pre-existing, inherent, natural right, not one created by government -- of individuals to own arms as protection against tyrannical government and life's other hazards. Scalia also cited American state constitutional protections of the right to arms, protections written contemporaneously with the drafting of the Second Amendment.
Scalia's opinion, joined by John Roberts, Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy, radiates an understanding that the right to arms is the right of each individual to protect his rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Hence the Second Amendment is integral to the Bill of Rights and is, for weighty reasons, second only to the First.
Obama benefits from this decision. Although he formerly supported groups promoting a collectivist interpretation -- nullification, really -- of the Second Amendment, as a presidential candidate he has prudently endorsed the "individual right" interpretation. Had the court held otherwise, emboldened gun-control enthusiasts would have thrust this issue, with its myriad cultural overtones, into the campaign, forcing Obama either to irritate his liberal base or alienate many socially conservative Democratic men.