Ruling may echo in gun debate

Opponents to state’s control efforts take heart in Supreme Court opinion

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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The US Supreme Court expanded yesterday the scope of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms, a ruling expected to intensify the debate over gun control just as Governor Deval Patrick is pushing a proposal to limit handgun purchases in Massachusetts.

The high court — in a closely watched 5-4 decision concerning handgun bans in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill. — ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment applies to state and local gun control laws. The court sent the case back to a federal appeals court, where legal specialists say the bans are all but certain to be struck down.

Although its short-term impact is murky, the ruling, written for the majority by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., is seen as likely to embolden gun rights advocates in Massachusetts to seek to repeal some existing restrictions, and to block Patrick’s pending bill to limit purchases of handguns to no more than one a month.

“I would think it would kill that bill outright,’’ Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, said of Patrick’s proposal. “If I purchase two guns and do nothing but bring them home and put them in my safe, the government is going to arrest me and put me in prison. I can’t see that passing any kind of constitutional muster.’’

However, Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the governor, said yesterday’s ruling dealt with outright bans of firearms and was much broader than the bill that Patrick has promoted as a crime-fighting tool.

The legislation has gained momentum after the recent shooting deaths of two 14-year-old boys in Boston.

“We are confident that this provision would withstand judicial review even under this new ruling,’’ Sullivan said in a statement. “Judge Alito himself states that the ruling does not eliminate states’ ‘ability to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values.’ ’’

State Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Republican from Grafton, said he believes that the high court’s ruling will boost efforts by some gun owners to repeal decades-old laws.

Peterson is the sponsor of a pending bill that would, among other things, undo a law that lets police chiefs deny gun licenses to individuals they think might be a public safety risk, even, Peterson said, if the applicant is not a convicted felon.

“You just had a ruling from the highest court in the land that [gun ownership] is an individual right, one that cannot be taken lightly and can’t just be restricted on a whim,’’ Peterson said.

The decision marked the second major Supreme Court victory for firearm owners in two years. In 2008, the court ruled by the same margin that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns in Washington D.C., striking down a local ban on handguns and a trigger-lock requirement for other guns in the district.

Because the District of Columbia has a unique legal standing, it was uncertain whether the court would use a similar rationale with Chicago’s gun control law, widely considered the most restrictive in the nation. But the court did, holding that the Second Amendment protects gun owners from overreaching by state and local governments.

Alito wrote in his opinion that the individual’s right to keep handguns for self-protection at home is constitutionally protected.

“A provision in the Bill of Rights that protects a right that is fundamental from an American perspective applies equally to the federal government and the states,’’ he wrote.

Alito said the right was not a blank check, though, saying states can still pass restrictions, such as barring possession of guns by felons or the mentally ill and prohibiting the carrying of guns in schools or government buildings.

Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the four dissenters, wrote that the case was much more than a sequel to its 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

“The consequences could prove far more destructive, quite literally, to our nation’s communities and to our Constitution,’’ he wrote.

Several legal specialists in Massachusetts said that because the court left vague what types of gun control laws are constitutional, the ruling is certain to prompt a flood of legal challenges.

“We know we can’t outright ban handguns in the home,’’ said Boston University law professor David J. Breen, a former prosecutor in Massachusetts and New York. “But can we pick and choose the types of weapons that are banned? Can we restrict access outside the home? I think those are still open questions.’’

John E. Rosenthal, founder of the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence and a gun owner, said he believes the Supreme Court ruling would have little or no effect on Massachusetts laws. The state has for years had bans on military-style assault weapons and on cheap, crudely made handguns known as Saturday night specials, but those prohibitions are likely to be considered “reasonable restrictions,’’ he said.

Stephen D. Poss — a lawyer with Goodwin Procter LLP in Boston who led a legal team that represented the National Rifle Association, a party in yesterday’s decision — said Rosenthal was “whistling in the dark.’’ He predicted that the state law that lets police chiefs deny licenses to applicants they deem safety risks will prompt a lawsuit within six months.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, a founder of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, said in a statement that the court ruling continues to allow “valid and reasonable’’ restrictions on possession of firearms and that he will still fight for “common-sense laws that will keep illegal guns from the hands of those seeking to do harm.’’

Attorney General Martha Coakley issued a similar statement, saying the state’s gun laws “strike an important balance’’ between public safety and civil liberties.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached by e-mail at jsaltzman@

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