WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court held off Tuesday on deciding whether to take up a high-profile case on killing a Washington, D.C., ban on handguns, leaving observers guessing what the court would do next.
The court has not heard a case involving the Second Amendment — which covers the "right to bear arms" — since 1939.
Four justices must vote to grant an appeal that would allow the high court to hear the case. The justice don't always reach a decision the first time they consider taking a case. The next time the court could announce its decision about hearing the case is Nov. 26.
The case, District of Columbia, et al. v. Heller, pits Washington, D.C., city officials against a resident, fronting a group of individuals, who sued the city over its 31-year-old ban on weapons in- and outside the home.
The group, all of whom are D.C. dwellers, won a major victory in March, when a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of overturning the ban. A full panel of the court later decided against reconsidering the panel's decision, setting up the high court battle.
Court observers expected an announcement Tuesday on whether the justices would agree to hear the case. The court does not have to stick to its norms for announcing cases, and this was one of those times.
The Second Amendment simply reads: "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." The meaning of this 27-word sentence has been the subject of countless discussions over the decades but as of late, not inside the high court.
The District of Columbia's entrance into the debate began soon after gaining the right to establish its own laws, free from direct congressional review. In 1976, the District of Columbia passed one of the nation's toughest regulations on guns: no handguns for anyone who isn't a retired police officer.
Furthermore, the district's law does not allow the possession of any "long gun" — for instance a shotgun or rifle — that isn't unloaded, disassembled or immobilized with a safety lock.
The law's advocates say it's necessary to protect the citizens from gun-related violence. But opponents point out the strict prohibition didn't prevent Washington, D.C., from once being dubbed the nation's "murder capital" because of the significant number of gun-related homicides, which in the early 1990s soared past 400 in one year.
Opponents also contend the law is contrary to the Second Amendment's language providing for a right to bear arms.
D.C. resident Dick Heller — an security officer who carries a handgun while at work — tried to register a personal handgun for his house and was flatly denied.
Heller sued and the trial court upheld the decision to deny him a permit. But in a historic finding last March, the federal three judge panel ruled in a 2-1 decision that Heller had a personal right to possess the handgun.
Its opinion quoted 18th century legal commentator Sir William Blackstone and the Federalist Papers, concluding "that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. That right existed prior to the formation of the new government under the Constitution and was premised on the private use of arms for activities such as hunting and self-defense."
The D.C. Circuit's interpretation, while not wholly unique, does set it apart from most other federal courts, which have ruled the Second Amendment refers only to militias.
Often the Supreme Court grants cases that have conflicting rulings from the lower courts. This case also presents an interesting dynamic as Heller and his supporters favored the District of Columbia's petition to the Supreme Court.
"[We] welcome [their] effort to have this court review the nature of Second Amendment rights. This case presents the court a unique opportunity to correct a persistent misconception that the people do not actually enjoy a right that is specifically enumerated in the Constitution. 'The people' — individuals in our country — retain the right to keep and bear arms," the group said in brief to the court.
On the merits of the case, the District of Columbia argues the constitutional language refers only to militias. It calls the D.C. Circuit's ruling "extraordinary" and argues, "the District of Columbia — a densely populated urban locality where the violence caused by handguns is well documented — will be unable to enforce a law that its elected officials have sensibly concluded saves lives."
In another twist to this case, both sides cite as precedent in their favor the 1939 Miller decision. That court could have issued a ruling that would have offered clarity on the reach of the Second Amendment. Instead its opinion was based on a technical matter that failed to resolve the standing question: Do the rights endowed in the Second Amendment extend to all people?
Similar to Miller, this case offers the court under Chief Justice John Roberts some room to issue an opinion on narrow technical grounds. Such a decision likely would disappoint all sides for failing to provide a definitive answer to a question that's been unresolved since 1791. But should the court issue a decisive ruling, it has the potential to enthrall and enrage the passions of those engaged on this controversial issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.