Controversial gun law is now a target

  • Article by: CONRAD WILSON and KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 9, 2008 - 12:16 AM

Six Minnesotans -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- joined about 300 other Congress members opposing a strict gun law.

WASHINGTON --More than half of Minnesota's congressional delegation has weighed in on a U.S. Supreme Court case that could once and for all define the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a personal right to own firearms.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed Friday urged the justices to rule against a hotly debated District of Columbia gun ban, widely considered the strictest in the country.

In an indication of the intense political crossfire over guns, the brief was signed by a bipartisan majority of 55 senators and 250 House members, including Sen. Norm Coleman and five of Minnesota's eight House members.

"This is the most significant Second Amendment case to face the Supreme Court in decades," Coleman said. "Gun ownership is a fundamental right, whether you live in Washington, D.C., or Wadena."

The outcome of the case could settle years of debate as to whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual's right to possess firearms -- the view of gun-rights groups -- or a collective right related to military service -- a view espoused by many gun-control advocates.

Central to the case is the long-disputed interpretation of the Second Amendment, which reads: "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."

Critics of D.C.'s 1976 gun law say it violates the amendment by virtually banning the private possession of handguns. It permits only registered rifles and shotguns, requiring that they be kept in homes "unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or similar device."

The congressional brief urges the justices to find that "the District's prohibitions on mere possession by law-abiding persons of handguns in the home and having usable firearms there are unreasonable."

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case March 18. Dick Heller, a security guard and D.C. resident, filed suit after his handgun registration was denied by the city. He was recruited and backed for a test case by the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

The congressional effort is being led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, in what could be one of the largest shows of public support by Washington legislators for a side involved in a pending Supreme Court case.

"From the reaction, both sides seem to think it's pretty important," said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat and an avid hunter who is active in a congressional sportsmen's caucus.

Peterson signed the brief together with two other rural Democrats from Minnesota: Jim Oberstar and Tim Walz.

Minnesota House Republicans Michele Bachmann and John Kline also signed on.

Kline said the overwhelming congressional interest in the case comes as a result of the "egregious," and "over-the-top" nature of the D.C. gun restrictions.

"We're looking at the Supreme Court to make a constitutional interpretation that will affect the country coast to coast," Kline said. "This is an opportunity to declare that the Second Amendment applies to individuals, not to militias."

Activists on both sides of the gun divide agree that the case could have ripple effects for gun restrictions across the nation.

No big impact in Minnesota

A decision overturning D.C.'s gun law "would make our work against gun violence harder," said Sue Fust, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota.

Still, the effects of the ruling would be muted in states such as Minnesota, where gun laws aren't nearly as restrictive as the District of Columbia's. Fust said gun-control advocates have wide public support for "sensible restrictions" rather than outright bans on gun ownership.

"We're trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who aren't responsible to use them," she said.

The broad bipartisan support for gun rights in Congress, she said, reflects the power of the gun lobby, which is influential in Washington through the well-funded National Rifle Association.

Altogether, nine Democratic senators and all but three Senate Republicans signed the brief. In the House, 68 Democrats and 182 Republicans signed on.

Among the leading presidential contenders, only Republican candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona backed the effort.

A number of groups across the country also are weighing in, including Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who is joining 30 state's attorneys Monday in a brief that supports an individual's rights under the Second Amendment.

On the other side, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan has joined in a brief supporting D.C.'s gun laws, along with two other police chiefs and the Violence Policy Center.

For gun-rights advocates such as Mark Koscielski, owner of Koscielski's Guns and Ammo in south Minneapolis, overturning D.C.'s gun restrictions would be a limited "moral" victory. The availability of firearms in Minneapolis, he noted, is indirectly controlled by local zoning laws rather than outright bans.

Still, he said, "This is going to be a symbolic decision."

kdiaz @ startribune.com • 202-408-2753 cwilson @ startribune.com • 202-408-2723

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