Local historian Robert Emmett Curran condemned the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 D.C. vs. Heller decision upholding an individual right to bear arms.
Curran directed a stinging rebuke of the court, noting it "willfully ignored the meaning of the law ... the need to have a militia." He railed, "So much for the majority's respect for precedence ..." He added, "One thing is certain: the decision has no more moral standing than did Dred Scott."
What's certain is Curran's arrogance in summarily dismissing the Supreme Court, the Second Amendment and the rule of law in general, also demonstrating his misunderstanding of earlier cases.
Fact check: No pre-Heller Supreme Court decision determined that the right to bear arms relied on militias. The few gun-related cases, most notably, Cruikshank (1875), Presser (1886) and Miller (1939) made references to militias, yet centered on and decided other issues. The court mainly limited the scope of the Bill of Rights to restricting the power of the federal government, leaving states free to make and enforce gun laws.
The issue of whether the right to bear arms was only collective (militias) or individual was argued throughout the 20th century. Some held the collective interpretation, including gun-control advocates, for obvious reasons, while an emerging body of scholars embraced an individual right. In the Heller decision, the court considered multiple sources, recognizing, among other things, the inherent pre-existing right of self-defense found in English common law. The court also considered analogous provisions in some state constitutions of the period, for example, the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights (1776): "right to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state" (words also found in the Kentucky Constitution). These sources argued for an individual right.
Unquestionably, the Founders believed a militia was preferable to a standing army, which they distrusted. Yet support of militias does not preclude an individual right— the two are not mutually exclusive. Note the wording of Clause Two: "The right of the people (not militias) ..." shall not be infringed" (already exists, shall not be undermined).
With evidence on both sides, majority in Heller was persuaded, and the court ruled. In our republic, this is how we settle issues of law. The process deserves respect.
Today the need for militias is long gone in favor of a national standing army. But the need for self-defense is as urgent as ever. This is true for gun owners and nonowners alike, the latter especially nervous with the recent string of shootings. "Who are these people who want to carry guns?" many of them ask.
As a Kentucky concealed-carry weapons instructor, I can at least vouch for licensees. These are not "gun nuts," criminals or the unbalanced — they are real people: mainstream, professional, an increasing number of them women. They are neighbors and family. And they all passed a background check.
Most don't follow the complex details of Supreme Court decisions. They simply want to contribute to their own security in a world that is increasingly dangerous and unforgiving of inability in self-defense. Their right to keep and bear arms is entirely practical. They wish to protect themselves when someone invades their home or assaults them in a parking lot. They should have that right.
We do need real debate about guns in our society and how to make our children and ourselves safer from violence. Take great care though to read the fine print of proposed laws presented as sensible, reasonable and protecting children. These laws often hide extreme limitations on the law-abiding. Heller's first name was Richard. Reasonable laws in Washington, D.C., denied his right to keep a handgun for self-defense in his home.
President Barack Obama ended his State of the Union address by recognizing victims of gun violence and exhorting Congress that they "deserve a vote." Indeed, all Americans deserve a vote, including gun owners, real people who value the Second Amendment and those who wish to preserve their ability to defend themselves.