WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search) is being asked to overturn an appeals court ruling that said the Constitution does not guarantee people a personal right to own a gun.
The court's past rulings on Second Amendment (search) gun rights - many in the 1800s - are a mess that should be straightened out when the justices return from their summer break, an appeal being filed Thursday at the court said.
The appeal relates to one of two closely watched cases from the liberal-leaning 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in San Francisco. The high court will also decide later this year whether to review a 9th Circuit ruling that banned teacher-led reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of the phrase "under God."
The gun case includes an unlikely group of challengers - not the National Rifle Association (search) or other organized groups, but some rugby teammates and friends. They include a police SWAT officer, a Purple Heart recipient, a former Marine sniper, a parole officer, a stockbroker and others with varied political views. They had sued the state over laws banning high-powered weapons.
"Citizens need the Second Amendment for protection of their families, homes and businesses," their attorney and rugby teammate, Gary Gorski of Fair Oaks, Calif., wrote in the appeal of a ruling that upheld California's assault weapons ban.
The Second Amendment states, "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 9th Circuit panel said the amendment's intent was to protect gun rights of militias, not individuals. A more conservative appeals court in New Orleans has ruled that individuals have a constitutional right to guns.
Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the Supreme Court's record on the Second Amendment is thin and odds are against the justices taking the case.
"The court hasn't jumped into it since 1939," he said. "At some point the Supreme Court will want to make sure it is interpreted consistently throughout the nation."
The case brings a politically charged issue to the court just before the presidential election. If justices agree to hear the case, it will be scheduled for argument next year.
Last year, gun-control advocates were dismayed by the Bush administration's endorsement of individual gun-ownership rights, in a filing at the Supreme Court that effectively reversed long-standing federal government policy on interpreting the Second Amendment.
The administration could weigh in now in this case. Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director for the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center (search), said it's better strategy for the White House to steer clear of the issue. The California case involves a state assault weapons ban, and there is controversy over whether Congress should renew a federal assault weapons ban next year.
President Bush has said he supports extending the federal ban, but sentiment is strong in the GOP-controlled Congress to let the ban expire and Bush has not put much energy into efforts to extend it.
Some advocates on both sides probably want the justices to decline to review the 9th Circuit ruling, said gun rights attorney Stephen Halbrook. "It's a wild card. You really can't read where they'll go."
He also said the case is complicated because it involves questions about state authority to undercut gun rights and whether the challengers had standing to sue the state.