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Tea Leaves, Ii

Second Amendment cases in the Supreme Court have numbered only two in the last century. After weeks of speculation that the 1939 Miller v. California would keep this streak alive, the court agreed to hear DC v. Heller, a challenge to the challenge of DC's stringent gun ban (which Sen. Jim Webb discovered the hard way), and the best chance for advocates of gun ownership to make flat-out bans unconstitutional.

If the lower-court decision is upheld, we may credit one man: Robert A. Levy, Cato scholar, plaintiff co-counsel, and mastermind of this hearing (like many blockbuster SCOTUS cases, a setup). Levy has been running himself ragged publishing on the matter since 2004. Dropping bombs in newspapers from coast to coast, he has laid out a case for individual access to guns that hinges on arguments both kooky (Virginia Tech victims could have risen up to quash the lunatic, if armed in class) and semantic (guns "in common use" are guns that we've all seen on television).

His fundamental gripe, however, seems to be the patchwork of national laws that send a mixed message to the supposed legions of Americans terrified of being shot. Granted, the self-defense argument is persuasive in the face of high crime and shooting rates in the US, and in DC in particular (despite the 31-year ban, the district led the nation in the 1990s in handgun-related murders). But Americans grapple with a host of complex considerations when we talk about guns--not least the likelihood that they will be used against us.

Levy hopes no such ambiguity will prevail. Congress, goaded by the NRA, has pushed stopgap legislation repealing the DC ban, but Levy is going for the gold with Heller, in hopes that the court will finally settle the meaning of the most simply worded section of the Bill of Rights. His push for an unequivocal individual mandate, however, is one the court has expressly avoided for nearly 70 years. This is no accident.

If SCOTUS rules a ban unlawful, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty bears the burden of relaxing standards for gun use; cities like Chicago, New York and Detroit may have to follow suit. Perhaps I misjudge popular sentiment about gun ownership (this issue, while a heated part of the 2000 campaign, has faded as liberals have gone silent), but to me this reads as a basic civics lesson. The court can (nominally) foster a crackdown on the violent crime perennially linked to handgun availability. Or it can (nominally) sanction a state of clannish self-defense among the public--every citizen for themselves.

The real point may be that it will do neither, and the mixed message is just fine. As Cass Sunstein writes in the latest issue, incorporating the Second Amendment so that it has authority over states will not stop localities from tailoring individual solutions. But Levy's brazen media blitz takes the case back to black and white--a position many Americans should know by now to mistrust.

--Dayo Olopade

Also: As our matching posts indicate, fellow R-R Josh and I give credence to this phenomenon.