Supreme Court’s Landmark U.S. Gun-Rights Ruling Not So Landmark

The dire warnings that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms would lead to a wholesale voiding of gun-control laws seem to have been overblown.

The most recent case in point: The justices on Monday declined to review a San Francisco gun law that was remarkably similar to one they struck down in a landmark ruling in 2008. Because the city law had been upheld by lower courts in California, the high court’s refusal to hear the case left the statute intact for San Francisco to enforce and others to copy.

The refusal to hear the challenge to the gun-control law was pretty remarkable given that it takes only four justices to agree to hear a case, and five of the current high court members backed the 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller.

That’s probably why Justice Clarence Thomas blew a gasket in dissent. He noted that lower courts like the ones in the San Francisco case had been dissing Heller since the ink dried on the opinion. He argued that they were missing the ruling’s main point: Self-defense is a basic right and the central component of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.

What stunned many legal experts about Heller was that the majority found that right to be an individual one. That’s what the National Rifle Association had been arguing for years, but mainstream scholars had dismissed this as some crazy notion. The scholars’ view was that the Second Amendment was put in the Bill of Rights because the Founding Fathers were protecting the rights of “a well-regulated militia.” In other words, they created a group right.

Once the majority recognized the individual right, the justices struck down a D.C. law that had banned most handguns in the home, partly as a safety measure, and required a trigger-guard on those few weapons that were allowed. That went too far, the majority said, because the law violated the basic right to defend oneself in the home.

The San Francisco law, which was passed a year before the 2008 ruling, also required trigger-guards on stored handguns or lockboxes -- unless you were carrying the weapon while at home, as in a holster.

One of the gun-owner plaintiffs, octogenarian Espanola Jackson, summed up her view of the law in court papers: “If I heard an intruder break into my home in the middle of the night, I would have to turn on the light, find my glasses, find the key to the lockbox, insert the key in the lock and unlock the box (under the stress of the emergency), and then get my gun before being in position to defend myself. That is not an easy task at my age.”

The court’s refusal to hear the case given its similarity to Heller was a complete rejection of that historic decision, Thomas said. It’s at least the high-water mark for the court in letting gun laws pass legal muster in the last seven years by refusing to hear any challenges to them. Any.

To be fair, the Heller ruling did contain some caveats that some people might have paid more attention to. One was a sentence that said nothing in the ruling would prevent traditional, reasonable regulation of guns such as prohibiting felons from owning them or banning their presence in sensitive places such as schools.

Turns out most gun laws fit within these categories. But arguably not San Francisco’s, so if that law didn’t get voided by the justices, what else is left of Heller?