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A Slippery Slope on Guns

A Slippery Slope on Guns

By Marie Cocco - October 6, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Whatever significance is attached to Chicago's failed bid to host the 2016 Olympics, it is of small importance to the rest of the country. More far-reaching and frightening is the Supreme Court's decision to take up a case challenging the city's ban on handgun ownership in the new term that begins this week.

The case is best considered a preview of coming attractions. The gun lobby, if it wins in the Supreme Court, is prepared to challenge every gun control law enacted at any level of government. It will usher in a scary season of assault on the common sense of citizens, law enforcement officials and others who believe that carrying today's high-powered weapons in an urbanized, mobile -- and angry -- society is chillingly dangerous, and deadly.

Since the high court last year struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership, gun-rights advocates have eagerly awaited a case that would extend the decision to states and localities. Because the District is a federal entity, a different case was needed to establish that states and municipalities don't have the right to impose broad gun restrictions. Chicago has become the test case.

Almost no one expects the conservative-leaning court will uphold Chicago's prohibition, which applies only to handguns. Owners of rifles used in hunting, for example, are unaffected by the local law.

This distinction says much about the current state of gun politics. Only about a decade ago, gun-rights activists often claimed that they wanted their weapons in order to hunt. They would evoke childhood memories of kinship that grew in the woods as one generation of hunters passed an ancient art on to another.

Those arguments seem as quaint now as the assumption that reasonable people do not bring firearms to political events featuring the president of the United States. Today the argument is that the right to carry arms -- not just to keep them at home for self-defense -- should effectively be unrestricted, so long as the individual with the weapon is not already a convicted criminal.

A preview of the argument is made in a case now making its way through the federal courts, challenging the District of Columbia's current gun law, which was revised after the court's action. It allows handgun permits only for residents who intend to use the guns for self-defense at home. The District still bans people from carrying guns around the nation's capital, where each year millions of tourists, schoolchildren, visiting officials and foreign dignitaries come to conduct business, immerse themselves in history or celebrate spring amid the splendor of the cherry blossoms.

"The Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry handguns in public for self-defense," the Second Amendment Foundation argues in that case.

What's more, the foundation asserts that the restrictions prohibiting visitors to the nation's capital from carrying guns are unlawful. "The Bill of Rights is enjoyed on equal terms by all visitors to our nation's capital," the court pleadings say. "Restricting fundamental rights to city residents ... violates not only the right to bear arms, but the right of travel as well."

The gun lobby's potency already has led Congress to abandon the 1990s-era ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, a prohibition that was broadly supported by law enforcement officials. A system of unregulated gun shows and private sales, where purchasers obtain weapons without a background check, remains in place. The gun-rights lobby celebrated the start of summer when President Obama signed a bill allowing loaded, concealed weapons to be brought into national parks. Gun supporters came very close -- too close -- to obliterating state laws on concealed weapons by pushing a measure to allow any concealed-gun carrier to bring that weapon into states with tougher laws.

"They want to establish a constitutional right to take any gun, anywhere, at any time," says Dennis Henigan, vice president of law and policy at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "They want to force that into every nook and cranny of American society."

Many Americans were unnerved at the sight of gun-toting protesters at health care "town hall" meetings and even outside of events where President Obama was appearing last summer. The cheerless truth is that the gun lobby, with the probable blessing of the Supreme Court, proudly promises more of the same.

mariecocco@washpost.com

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Marie Cocco

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