WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court says it will take up a challenge to Chicago's ban on handguns, opening the way for a ruling that could set off a vigorous new campaign to roll back state and local gun controls across the nation.
Victory for gun-rights proponents in the Chicago case is considered likely, even by supporters of gun control, in the latest battle in the nation's long and often bitter dispute over the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. A ruling against the city's outright ban could lead to legal challenges to less-restrictive laws across the country that limit who can own guns, whether firearms must be registered and how they should be stored.
The case is to be argued early next year.
Last year, the justices struck down a prohibition on handguns in the District of Columbia, a city with unique federal status, as a violation of the Second Amendment. Now the court will decide whether that ruling should apply to local and state laws as well.
The court has previously said that most, but not all, rights laid out in the Constitution's Bill of Rights serve as checks on state as well as federal restrictions. Separately, 44 state constitutions already enshrine gun rights.
Though faced with potential limits from the high court on their ability to enact laws and regulations in this area, 34 states weighed in on the gun- rights side before the justices agreed to take the case Wednesday, an indication of the enduring strength of the National Rifle Association and its allies.
The gun case was among several the court added to its docket for the term that begins Monday. Others include:
- A challenge to part of a law that makes it a crime to provide financial and other aid to any group designated a terrorist organization.
- A dispute over when new, harsher penalties can be given to sex offenders who don't register with state sex offender databases.
- Whether to throw out a human rights lawsuit against a former prime minister of Somalia who is accused of overseeing killings and other atrocities. The issue is whether a federal law gives the former official, Mohamed Ali Samantar, immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts.
In the gun case, outright handgun bans appear to be limited to Chicago and suburban Oak Park, Ill. But a ruling against those ordinances probably would "open up all the gun regulations in the country to constitutional scrutiny, of which there are quite a few," said Mark Tushnet, a Harvard Law School professor whose recent book "Out of Range" explores the often bitter national debate over guns.
Already, Alan Gura, who led the legal challenge to the Washington law and represents the plaintiff in Chicago, is suing to overturn the District of Columbia's prohibition on carrying firearms outside a person's home. Illinois and Wisconsin have similar restrictions.
In voiding Washington's handgun ban last year, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that gun rights, like the right to speech, are limited and that many gun control measures could remain in place.
Ultimately, said Tushnet, the court will have to decide, possibly restriction by restriction, which limits are reasonable.
"It's very hard to know where this court would draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable," he said.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said he hopes the court rules that "core fundamental freedoms like speech, religion and, we believe, the right to keep and bear arms are intended to apply to every individual in the country."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the court's decision to take up the new case was unsurprising in light of last year's ruling.
These cases should "take the extremes off the table," Helmke said, referring to bans on guns and unlimited gun rights. "What's critical for us is how the court goes about fleshing out what the limits are."
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago had upheld the gun bans as legitimate expressions of local and state rights.
Judge Frank Easterbrook, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, wrote in the ruling that "the Constitution establishes a federal republic where local differences are to be cherished as elements of liberty rather than extirpated in order to produce a single, nationally applicable rule."
"Federalism is an older and more deeply rooted tradition than is a right to carry any particular kind of weapon," Easterbrook wrote.
Evaluating arguments over the extension of the Second Amendment is a job "for the justices rather than a court of appeals," he said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then an appeals court judge, was part of a three-judge panel in New York that reached a similar conclusion in January.
The high court took the suggestion Wednesday.
Judges on both courts - Republican nominees in Chicago and Democratic nominees in New York - said only the Supreme Court could decide whether to extend last year's ruling throughout the country.
The New York ruling also has been challenged, but the court did not act on it Wednesday. Sotomayor would have to sit out any case involving decisions she was part of on the appeals court. Although the issue is the same in the Chicago case, there is no ethical bar to her participation in its consideration by the Supreme Court.
She replaced Justice David Souter, who dissented in the 5-4 Washington case, so the five-justice majority remains intact.
Several Republican senators cited the Sotomayor gun ruling, as well as her reticence on the topic at her confirmation hearing, in explaining their decision to oppose her confirmation to the high court.