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Supreme Court Strikes Down DC Handgun Ban

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In a historic ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court voted that the Second Amendment enshrines the constitutional right of an individual to own and keep a loaded handgun at home for purposes of self-defense. The 5-4 decision to overturn the thirty-two-year-old ban on handguns in the nation’s capital is the Court’s most significant ruling on the Second Amendment since 1939. We speak with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In an historic ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court voted that the Second Amendment enshrines the constitutional right of an individual to own and keep a loaded handgun at home for purposes of self-defense. The five-four decision to overturn the thirty-two-year-old ban on handguns in the nation’s capital is the Court’s most significant ruling on the Second Amendment since 1939.

In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia said that, quote, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” as enshrined in the Second Amendment, applied not only to the “well regulated militia” mentioned in the amendment, but also to individuals. He added, quote, “It is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”

The dissenting justices strongly disagreed and called the decision, quote, “a dramatic upheaval in the law.” Justice Breyer wrote, quote, “The decision threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush welcomed the ruling, as did Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama. The National Rifle Association applauded the ruling and said it marked, quote, “a great moment in American history.” The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence criticized the decision and argued it would, quote, “embolden criminal defendants, and ideological extremists, to file new legal attacks on existing gun laws.”

The ruling has also met with widespread criticism from lawmakers and the mayors of Washington, DC and Chicago. Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia. She’s speaking out about the decision, joining us from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you start by just responding to this ruling?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: The ruling is — I suppose, has really very bad news and very good news. The good news is, for those of us who expected the worst, it could have been worse. First of all, it was narrow, five to four. And its wording left a lot of room still to regulate guns, because the ruling’s holding is — amounts to three things. You can have a handgun in your home to be used only for self-defense. That means people shouldn’t go out and think they can have a gun and shoot it, because if you were to shoot it and it were not for used for self-defense, for example, it would not come under the court’s decision. Moreover, it doesn’t mean there is an individual right to have a gun. It’s an individual right to have a handgun in your home and used for self-defense. It could have been worse.

The bad news is that no handgun in your home is going to remain in your home. These handguns are going to — first of all, handguns in the home, according to all the data, are used primarily for suicides and for domestic and friend-to-friend violence. They are used, or not particularly used, but cause huge accidents among grown-ups and children. Imagine people sitting in their houses getting a jump on a criminal. Most of the criminals in the District of Columbia do not enter houses when they think people are at home in the first place. So, in many ways, the decision was a huge stretch.

It was a stretch around the Second Amendment itself, because the Second Amendment starts saying exactly what it’s about. It was about a country that was very afraid that creating a central government, which would have an army, would leave the states disempowered to in fact handle themselves. And so, the states were sure that these militias could always be armed. This court, which calls itself a conservative, strict constructionist court, simply reached around that, called it a preamble, and said that the use of the words “militia” and “people” was about individual rights, when, if you look at all of the amendments of the Constitution, six other amendments, when the word “people” is used, it is referring collectively, usually, to the states.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congresswoman Holmes Norton, unfortunately, both political parties, it appears, as well as the two top presidential candidates, have essentially, in their platforms and in their pronouncements, supported the Court’s interpretation, apparently.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Certainly not the Court’s interpretation. Both political parties — I don’t know what you mean by political parties. I wasn’t aware there was anything in the Democratic platform about the Second Amendment. But I can say to you that the Second — that the District gun law was consistent with the Second Amendment. There was the right to have a gun in your home. It had to be unloaded. It had to be a gun used for hunting. Even we, with the strictest gun laws, have never taken the position that an individual couldn’t own a gun. What, in fact, the radicals, the gun radicals, are saying is that indeed there should be no regulation and that the Second Amendment is like the First Amendment: it should be absolute or near absolute. At least the Court said it wasn’t absolute. And if the District is doing its homework, as I can assure you it is, it will now proceed to write very, very strict gun laws, which I think can be done consistent with this decision.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It did, though, state that you can — that it allowed states and jurisdictions to continue to have restrictions or regulations for the sale and possession of handguns, correct?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Yeah, that’s a very important question. Yes, for example, it said that the licensing requirements, registration requirements, could in fact be used, so that the District could say that everybody had to, in fact, register guns. It could have restrictions on who could own a gun. I would hope that the District would not say that anyone over eighteen should own a gun, not in this town and, I must say, in major cities across the United States, where the most — the greatest upsurge in violence, in gun violence, has been among teenagers. So I would hope they would say at least twenty-one.

The decision said that our law saying that guns had to have trigger locks on them left open — fortunately left open the notion about trigger locks. It didn’t not say that the gun cannot be required to have a trigger lock. It said the gun had — you had to be able to have a loaded gun in your house. The problem with all of this, of course, is having a loaded gun in your home, according to all the experience, means that that gun will be used precisely in the opposite way that the decision interprets. It says it’s supposed to be used for self-defense. What is the experience? The experience is somebody gets mad, knows he has a gun, goes out and gets it — up and gets it. We think that the guns will find their ways into the streets. Somebody will say, “I’m going to go in my house. I’m supposed to keep it in my house.” He’s not going to think about what the law is. He’s going to bring it out. He’s having a dispute with his neighbor. We now have a huge new pool of guns, unless we write very, very strict regulations. And I believe that the job of the District and of other cities who have gun laws as strict as ours is to write regulations as strict as they possibly can, consistent with this decision. And I think there are very, very strict gun laws that can now be written. And we shouldn’t hedge on it at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton, Senator Obama responded saying, “Today’s decision reinforces [that] if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.” Your response?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I believe he must be saying, if we act responsibly with the required regulations.

AMY GOODMAN: He supported the decision.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Yes, he supported the decision, and I regret that, because — but I think that essentially what he’s trying to do is to say, I’ve always said it’s a right, a Second Amendment right. He’s from Chicago. His law, the law of Obama’s Chicago, of Mayor Daley’s Chicago, is in many ways like ours, enough like ours so that it now is being challenged. And it probably will fall behind this decision. I think, and even predicted, that neither candidate would try to make a big issue out of this decision. They’re both trying essentially to appeal, frankly, to independents, because neither the Democrats or Republicans decide presidential contests anymore, and haven’t for at least twenty-five years.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton, I wanted to ask you one last question on the position of Barack Obama on a Supreme Court decision, and that is the one, the Supreme Court ruling, that the death penalty could not be applied to child rapists — not child murderers, but child rapists. And Senator Obama disagreed with this decision, though he has opposed the death penalty before. In this case, he said, “I think [that] the rape of a small child, six or eight years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, [that] that does not violate our Constitution.” Your response?

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Well, they say it doesn’t. Since they have the last word, they say it doesn’t violate the Constitution. If I were Barack Obama, who has the same position, I thought, on the death penalty as I do, and the Supreme Court ruled in that way, I would have to concede that is now the law of the land and regret it. The Supreme Court, I think, has increasingly seen how isolated we are in having a death penalty, especially death penalty — I mean, at all, but especially a death penalty that takes in so many crimes. And for those of us who oppose the death penalty, as I had thought Senator Obama did, we are quick to recognize the rule of law, but I don’t see how you could say anything different from what the Court said. The Court said that the death penalty is used when when the crime is essentially a crime against the state for the worst crimes. Many of these rapes, they’re terrible, terrible things, are — rapes, I think, even in this case, a rape within the family, the notion of shaving your decision in this way, it seems to me, should be done very carefully. In my case, I would have to recognize what the Court said, said I do not agree with it, and gone on. I understand he’s in the middle of a campaign, doesn’t want to make a big issue of it. I regret that it looks like he’s changed his position on what I regard as a very principled matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton, we thank you for taking the time to be with us. Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia.

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