Paul Greenberg

"Most people who want to possess guns are law-abiding and present no threat to others. Rather than the availability of weapons, my experience is that gun violence is driven by culture, police presence (or lack of same), and failures in the supervision of parolees and probationers."

Washington's largely futile ban on handguns also has run afoul of constitutional scholars who see an individual right to keep and bear arms in the Second Amendment, not just a collective right to maintain a militia.

Now, with the Supreme Court's having agreed to review this case, some see a chance to clear up - once and for all - any doubt about the Second Amendment's reach, and establish beyond cavil the individual's right to bear arms in this Republic.

But beware of courts when they decide to hand down a definitive decision about a long-debated principle of constitutional law. That's what happened in 1857 when Chief Justice Roger Taney decided that the Supreme Court over which he presided was going to clear up the cloudy legal issues hanging over the South's peculiar institution.

The result was the Dred Scott decision, surely the high court's worst ever. It made slavery not just a peculiarity confined to part of the country but legal everywhere, voiding the those hard-wrought compromises that had managed to preserve the Union ever since its founding. And The War came. The moral of this story: Some questions are best left to time, precedent and the evolving standards of the common law.

It happened again in 1973, when the Supreme Court in its wisdom installed abortion as the law of the land rather than leave so morally troubling a question to the several states. Instead of resolving the issue once and for all, the high court ignited it. The acrimony over abortion now has been mounting for decades and shows no signs of abating. That tends to happen when courts lose the sense of restraint that ought to mark prudent law.

Now the court has agreed to open another Pandora's Box. (Or, as an Arkansas politician once put it in one of his wilder flights of rhetoric, a whole box of Pandoras.) Never mind that for decades now the question of the Second Amendment's root meaning has been left open while a consensus gradually formed, namely that the individual's right to bear arms does not mean the government cannot regulate that right for good reason.

To quote a balanced appellate decision back in 2001 out of the Fifth Circuit (U.S. v. Emerson), the "Second Amendment does protect individual rights (but) that does not mean that those rights may never be subject to any limited, narrowly tailored specific expectationsŠ."

The ruling in Emerson upheld an act of Congress denying the right to buy or carry a gun to someone who was under a protective court order for good reason. In that case, the defendant had threatened his estranged wife.

The decision in Emerson made good sense - and good constitutional law. The right to bear arms may belong to the individual, but that doesn't mean it's an absolute right that trumps society's interest in saving life and preserving the peace.

The court could have declined to review this appellate decision out of the District of Columbia, and just left it standing. That way, the justices would not have run the risk of handing down a landmark decision that could overturn not just one bad law in the District of Columbia but sensible gun laws throughout the Union. On the other hand, the court in its zeal for clarity could undermine the fundamental right of all Americans to bear arms.

Here's hoping the justices will practice a much praised but less practiced principle called judicial restraint, and recognize that every right, including the right to keep and maintain arms, carries with it a responsibility. And that government should protect not only our rights, but our safety.

Some questions of abstract principle are better left unresolved rather than resolved clearly - and wrongly. When it comes to making law, ambiguity is a much under-rated virtue.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.