For decades the city government of Washington, D.C., banned handguns among its citizens. Permits were given for special cases but, by and large, these lethal weapons were not to be in the possession of residents in a city that, tragically, has vied with other metropolitan areas to be the “murder capital of the U.S.” So the recent decision of the Supreme Court repealing the District’s handgun ban deserves our attention.
All of the majority votes in the Supreme Court’s verdict came from the five Catholic justices on the court: John Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito Jr. This highlights the irony that Catholic social teaching—which provides modern Catholics and others of good will with resources to apply biblical wisdom to many of the common problems facing us in 21st century life, including violence, arms production, and weapons proliferation—has remained the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret.”
The facts of the court case are straightforward. Security guard Dick Anthony Heller, who had a permit to carry a gun when on duty, challenged the D.C. law, seeking permission to have a weapon in his home. The District Court threw out Heller’s case, but the D.C. Circuit Court reversed the lower court’s decision, and on June 26, in a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld that reversal.
Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion in the case, ignored one Second Amendment clause—“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”—in favor of a literalistic application of the other clause—“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (For the record, Heller had no stated intention of joining a “well-regulated militia.”) Scalia’s logic, which struck some observers as fundamentalism at its worst, contradicted not only D.C. law but overwhelming local public opinion as well.