Few issues in America today better reflect how common sense and empirical evidence can change public opinion than that of gun rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court got it right Thursday when it ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the Constitution's Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns, and when it struck down a total ban on handgun ownership in the District of Columbia. It also was right to go a step further and reject laws that require trigger locks and the dismantling of weapons when kept in the home. In a 64-page decision, the majority carefully laid out historical evidence to support its conclusion, including an examination of how the Founders used the term "the people" when enumerating rights.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to observe, however, was the reaction to the decision. It apparently raised strong opinions dividing the right and left wings of the court. Outside the Supreme Court, however, there was much less division.
Forty years ago, after several political assassinations, Democrats fought openly for federal laws curtailing firearm usage. But this week, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama, reacted to the court's decision by telling The Associated Press only that it would "provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country." Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said it would "usher in a new era in which the constitutionality of government regulations of firearms are reviewed against the backdrop of this important right."
Even the liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, whose work appears regularly on these pages, wrote that the decision was right. "I've never been able to understand why the Founders would stick a collective right into the middle of the greatest charter of individual rights and freedoms ever written ..."
The gun-ban movement has lost considerable steam. Perhaps this is because laws completely banning firearms have proven ineffective against crime. Washington provides a strong example. When the handgun ban there went into effect in 1976, the city had 135 handgun murders. In 2006, the number of murders was exactly the same, despite the fact the city's population had decreased.
The court also made clear that the Second Amendment does not grant unlimited rights. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose." That would clearly pose disruptions to peaceful society. Requirements to obtain a concealed weapons permit, as well as laws allowing guns to be kept out of churches and other public places, remain constitutional. That is common sense.
The court certainly didn't end debates over gun rights forever. Few debates are settled that way. But for the first-ever comprehensive interpretation of the Second Amendment, it laid an impressive foundation.