With Justices Split, No Big Gun Rulings in Sight

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After the deadly Florida school shooting, attention has focused on possible gun-control legislation, but what does the U.S. Supreme Court have to say about gun control? After important decisions nearly a decade ago, the court has turned away most cases challenging gun laws, NPR reports. In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the court said there is an individual constitutional right to have a handgun in one’s home for self-protection. The court has never said that the right to bear arms in this country is absolute. The justices said the government can ban firearms for felons or the mentally ill; it can ban guns in sensitive places, like schools and government buildings; and it can impose conditions and qualifications for the commercial sale of guns. The court seemed to say that “particularly dangerous and unusual weapons” like military-style assault weapons, could be banned.

In 2014, the court by a 5-to-4 vote upheld a strict ban on the straw purchase of firearms; for instance, someone has a record of domestic violence and wouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun, but a family member or friend buys one for that person. There’s no indication the court is anxious to take up more gun cases anytime soon. There are two possible explanations for this continued refusal to act — (1) that the court believes it laid down guidelines in its 2008 Heller decision and would just as soon stay out of this, and (2) more likely, neither side — those justices who believe that the Constitution allows strict gun laws or those who think that such gun control laws are unconstitutional — is sure it has the votes to prevail if the court takes up these issues. The Heller case was 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy the deciding vote.

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