New Battle in the Gun War Heads to the Supreme Court

Supreme Court will hear case of residents who want Chicago's handgun ban gone.

October 04, 2009, 4:24 PM

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2009— -- It was an image that shocked the country.

A 16-year-old honor student in Chicago being beaten to death by teenagers. Derrion Albert, a high school sophomore was caught in a mob fight as he was walking to a bus stop. Despite not being part of either of the gangs, he was punched, kicked and struck by a board.

And just a week and a half after the fatal incident, as residents demand safer streets, Chicago faces a new battle -- this time over guns.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will begin its 2009-2010 term, and on the docket is the case of Chicago residents who are challenging the constitutionality of the city's hand gun laws, which ban residents within the city limits from having guns, even in their own homes.

Otis McDonald, who lives in the same neighborhood where Albert was killed, says his own life has been threatened by local thugs and he says his home has been broken into.

"When I'm at home, I can't even protect myself there. This house here has been broken into at least three times only a week ago," the retired maintenance engineer told ABC News. "It's the times that we live in, and long ago, when the guns were taken away from us in '82, '83, it wasn't so bad back then, but times have changed. ... Everybody is in danger now, in these days."

McDonald says having a handgun in his home would make him feel safer and secure. And he's asking the Supreme Court to let him get that gun, by overturning Chicago's quarter-century ban on handguns.

"Rightfully, we are due the arm to protect ourselves in our homes, and there's nothing wrong with us having that," he argued. "I know what my rights are, and I have an inherited right to own a gun in my own home."

If a recent court decision is any sign, McDonald could have his way. In a historic ruling in June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the handgun ban in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional and a violation of an individual's Second Amendment right to bear arms. But the case left open the question of how the ruling would apply to state and city laws.

Gun Proponents Are Optimistic About Lifting Restrictions

At the time, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote he feared "that the District's policy choice may well be just the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table."

And that could very well be the case as gun rights advocates hope to extend last year's ruling to all cities and states.

Overturning Chicago's gun ordinance, which was put into law in 1982, would be the first step, and proponents of gun rights are hoping the Supreme Court will rule in their favor.

"When they decided it was an individual right in the last case, I mean you can't say it's an individual right for citizens in Washington, D.C., but not in Maine. You can't say you have a right to speak in Washington, but not in Chicago. You have a right to practice religion in D.C., but not in Texas. Cruel and unusual punishment is outlawed in D.C., but not in Wyoming, I mean, that's not the way our country works," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

"Individual, fundamental, core rights are for all Americans, and I think that's what the court's going to say in this case," LaPierre told ABC News.

Across the country, gun rights proponents say the momentum is shifting in their favor.

"Although it became popular a while ago to stamp out our Second Amendment rights, but it's fading by ... It is a shift," said seller Jerry Cochran at a recent gun show.

But the big question that remains is what kind of restrictions can be imposed on gun ownership.

In the landmark D.C. case, Justice Antonin Scalia, mindful of high crime rates, said the right to hold firearms was not absolute.

"Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill," he wrote, or in "sensitive places" like schools or government buildings, or laws regulating commerce in firearms, as well as banning "dangerous and unusual weapons," which would include military-style assault weapons.

Gun control advocates, who were devastated by the D.C. ruling and admit they will probably lose the Chicago case, are pinning their hopes on this opening left by the court.

"The court made it very clear that the Second Amendment right is not unlimited and that there can be restrictions on who gets guns, where they take guns, what kind of guns they get, how they're carried, how they're stored, how they're sold," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy group.

That's why the Supreme Court's case has implications for the rest of the country and opens up a whole new chapter in the gun battle. If outright bans are eliminated, the two sides will fight over restrictions such as registration and waiting periods. Those could be the next battle to reach the Supreme Court.

Even as Chicago remains divided over gun laws -- some believe it would only contribute to the escalating violence -- for some residents such as McDonald, overturning the city's laws would mean more protection.

"The days that we live in now and the people that we live around," McDonald said. "I never thought would be as dangerous as I see they are today."

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