U.S. Supreme Court takes on gun control

March 18, 2008 10:01:29 PM PDT
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday began dealing with the controversial issue of gun control. The justices are being asked to decide whether Washington DC's sweeping ban on handguns violates the second amendment. San Francisco is directly involved in the case itself and the outcome.

The legal flap is over 27 words, "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 polarizing question is, does that mean an individual has the right to own guns or is that right somehow tied to a militia?

Several justices seemed skeptical the Constitution could allow a complete ban on handguns.

"What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts.

"It's a ban only on the possession of one kind of weapon of handguns that's been considered especially dangerous," said Walter Dellinger, an attorney for District of Columbia.

"How could the district code provision survive under any standard of review where they totally ban the possession of the type of weapon that's most commonly used for self defense?" Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Stephen Breyer appeared to side with gun control advocates.

"80 to 100,000 people every year in the United States are either killed or wounded in gun related homicides or crimes or accidents or suicides," said Justice Breyer.

San Francisco was one of 12 cities that joined a Friend of the Court Brief, asking the Supreme Court to refrain from limiting the rights of cities to address gun violence.

"We should have the right to make local gun regulations to protect the health and welfare of our citizens," said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

District Attorney Kamala Harris filed another brief joined by 17 other district attorneys. Today's hearing gave her optimism.

"What we have inferred from that conversation is that the justices are overall agreeing that the states can place reasonable restrictions on an individual's possession of handguns and weapons," said District Attorney Harris.

Retired San Francisco Police Lieutenant Larry Barsetti believes the Second Amendment gives citizens the unfettered right to own guns. He's one of a dozen plaintiffs who filed suit the day after San Francisco voters ago passed Proposition H. That was three years ago. The measure banning firearms in San Francisco was later struck down.

"The only people who will have guns and we've said this over and over again, it's a cliché, are the outlaws. The rest of us will be at their mercy because there aren't enough cops," said Lieutenant Barsetti.

Washington's handgun ban had been on the books for over three decades when a Federal Appeals Court ruled it was unconstitutional in March. D.C. officials appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Its ruling is expected in late June.