The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to block two San Francisco gun control measures that were fiercely opposed by the National Rifle Association. At least one veteran court observer says the high court's decision raises questions about how the justices interpret the Second Amendment.
First, the basics: A 2007 San Francisco ordinance requires residents to keep handguns under lock and key or to use trigger locks when they are not carrying their weapons. Another law, dating to 1994, bans the sale of ammunition that expands on impact, or hollow-point bullets.
Plaintiff Espanola Jackson and seven other petitioners, including the NRA, filed suit in 2012. They sought an injunction to keep the lockbox law from being enforced. But in March 2014, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the City and County of San Francisco and left both measures intact.
In their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiffs repeated the argument they had made all along, claiming that "San Francisco stands alone in insisting that it may deny its residents immediate access to operable handguns in their own homes under the guise of regulating the manner in which they store them." They painted the picture of a law-abiding homeowner who "must fumble for the reading glasses and the lockbox while an intruder roams the premises."
The plaintiffs argued that they had precedent on their side, citing the high court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. In that case, the justices ruled that under the Second Amendment a gun owner has a right to self-defense with a gun available within the home.
But only two justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, voted to review the case. Four of the nine must agree to hear a case.
In a six-page dissent, Thomas, joined by Scalia wrote that the San Francisco gun laws are "in serious tension with Heller" and that the prior court rulings had "failed to protect" the Second Amendment.
"San Francisco's law allows residents to use their handguns for the purpose of self-defense, but it prohibits them from keeping those handguns operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense when not carried on the person," Thomas wrote.
SCOTUSblog's Lyle Denniston writes that the court's action raises "significant new questions about how much protection the Constitution's Second Amendment actually gives to gun owners."
"Much of the uncertainty that has spread to courts across the country has involved the core question whether the personal right extends anywhere beyond the home. That has been the issue that the Justices have most often declined to sort out. The San Francisco case, however, sought to bring the Court back inside the home, to determine how far government could go to regulate access to a weapon there."