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Gun laws

05/15/07 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Given the recent shootings at Virginia Tech, there's been much talk about imposing stricter gun control laws across the Nation. Commentator Cheryl Hanna suggests that given what's happening in the Federal Courts, those efforts may be in vane.

(HANNA) In March, just weeks before the shootings at Virginia Tech, for the first time in our nation's history, a federal court in the District of Columbia held that gun ownership is an individual constitutional right, and struck down that city's gun control law as a violation of the second amendment.

Last week, the court denied a rehearing, paving the way for the Supreme Court to ultimately rule on this issue.

The Supreme Court hasn't taken a second amendment case since 1931, yet conventional wisdom has long considered that the second item in the Bill of Rights protected only the rights of states to have militias, not individual freedoms. Indeed, most federal courts to consider that issue have ruled as such.

Yet, over the last few years, many Constitutional scholars, including some of the most liberal, have changed their minds, arguing that, like it or not, each of us has a constitutional right to bear arms, to hunt and to protect ourselves from both wrongdoers and tyrannical governments.

So - what does this mean in the midst of public concerns about the shootings at Virginia Tech?

First of all, if I could accurately predict the Supreme Court, I can assure you I'd be making a heck of a lot more money than I do now. But there does seem to be some strong support on the Court, from Justice Thomas in particular, that the Second Amendment does protect individual gun ownership.

Now, that's not to say that the right to bear arms would be without limits. Just as you can't yell fire in a crowded theater, or refuse to pay your taxes based on religious beliefs, no Constitutional right is absolute.

Rather, the government can only infringe upon those rights if it has a compelling reason to do so, and if it restricts our freedoms no more than necessary. You'll likely never be able to carry a gun on an airplane, but what about restrictions to simply owning and carrying a firearm?

That's where Vermont is likely to come in: Vermont has no state gun control laws. It's even legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. And it's one of the safest states in the nation relative to gun violence.

There are likely many reasons for that, but no doubt the Courts will look to Vermont and ask whether restricting gun ownership is the only way to curb violence. The DC Court didn't think so, and it's likely the Supreme Court won't either.

If that's the case, then those who want tougher gun control laws will have to amend the Constitution. Yet, the history of the Constitution has been to expand individual liberties. I can't see us giving up our newly interpreted right to bear arms, even in the wake of a national tragedy.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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