Do You Have a Legal Right to Own a Gun?

Many legal analysts predict that the court led by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts is ready to declare some individual right to own guns. Moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy could be a key vote on the issue, as he has been for the past two years on the divided court.

"My assumption is that there are at least five votes for the proposition that the Second Amendment protects an individual right," says Yale University law professor Jack Balkin. "But just because you say there is an individual right, you haven't resolved the case. … Is it an individual right to keep and bear arms that might be useful in militia service, a right to keep and bear arms that might be useful for self-defense, or both?"

The shifting politics on guns

Gun control was a recurring issue in the 1990s and deeply divided Democrats and Republicans, as Democrats typically favored strict controls on guns and Republicans stressed that people would be safer if they were allowed to arm themselves.

That has changed somewhat. The Democratic and GOP candidates for president have differences on gun control, but Democrats are trying to appeal to those on each side of the debate. That's likely a reflection of Democratic leaders' attempts to move their party's stance on guns closer to that of most voters.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has focused on gun control in their campaigns for the Democratic nomination. When asked specifically about it in public forums, they voice modest support for new regulations and quickly add that the Second Amendment protects people's gun rights.

"The Clinton and Obama campaigns know the public opinion data on the issue well," says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow specializing in public opinion polls at the American Enterprise Institute. "Opinion is complex, but the right to be able to own a gun seems to be firmly held, and I think that's why both candidates say what they say."

At a debate in January, Clinton acknowledged that she had dropped her support for the licensing of new gun owners and registration of new guns, which she advocated in 2000 when she ran for the U.S. Senate in New York. She endorsed reinstating an assault-weapons ban, then added: "I believe in the Second Amendment. People have a right to bear arms. But I also believe that we can common-sensically approach this."

Obama also said he no longer supported broad licensing and registering of firearms, as he did when he was in the Illinois Senate. "We essentially have two realities when it comes to guns in this country. You've got the tradition of lawful gun ownership. … And it is very important for many Americans to be able to hunt, fish, take their kids out, teach them how to shoot," he said. "And then you've got the reality of public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago."

Republican frontrunner Sen. John McCain has needed no such finessing of the issue.

He joined a congressional "friend of the court" brief in the D.C. case that vigorously endorses an individual right to have guns.

Courts at odds with public

The Second Amendment says, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Until recently, judges seized on the first part, the collective "militia" right, rather than the second clause, "the right of the people."

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