Rupert Cornwell: America loves both the law and the gun

How can the thoughts of the 18th century be applied to gun control in the 21st?
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You can live in a country for more than a dozen years. You can marry one of its citizens, and watch your son grow up to be one of its citizens. Yet on occasion, here in the United States, I still feel like an alien from the opposite end of the universe.

This week provided one of those moments, when the Supreme Court threw out the District of Columbia's 32-year ban on handgun ownership, ruling in the process that the second amendment of the country's constitution guaranteed the right of every American to possess firearms.

A statement of the blindingly obvious, you might think, given that the gun population of the US is not far short of its 300 million human one. But that did not prevent this affirmation of the status quo being trumpeted by leading newspapers, with headlines of the size normally reserved for terrorist attacks and presidential election results.

The majority and dissenting opinions in the 5-4 decision, and the shifts from the nine-man court's previous pronouncements on the issue, have been parsed and dissected with the zeal classics masters from my schooldays used to apply to the finer points of Greek grammar. And, it must be said, not without reason.

The crux of the debate is in the language of the amendment, second of the 10 that form America's bill of rights, that noblest of charters of basic human rights, but also perhaps the most picked-over body of words on the planet.

It reads as follows: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." Try disentangling that one, and its idiosyncratic use of commas that would have appalled my classics master had the text been written in the language of Demosthenes. How exactly are the thoughts of statesmen of the late 18th century to be divined and applied to gun control in the first decade of the 21st? Previously, the court has upheld ownership of firearms as a collective right – in the context of those citizen militias who 220 years ago were a safeguard against any attempt by Britain to regain the colonies that had the cheek to fight for, and win, their independence.

This time the conservative majority on the court went further. The amendment, it declared, guaranteed an individual's right to own a gun for self-defence, whatever the crime-ridden District of Columbia or anyone else might have to say on the subject.

So, you might think, the floodgates have been opened. We should brace ourselves for even wider gun ownership and a jump in the murder rate. Surely there will be more of those shooting sprees that in foreign eyes are the hallmark of modern America – be they the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech which generated global headlines, or incidents seemingly so common they are scarcely noticed any more, such as in Kentucky on the very eve of the Supreme Court's decision, when a disgruntled worker at a plastics factory shot dead five of his colleagues and then himself.

Oddly, though, even for those to whom common sense dictates the fewer handguns around the better, the ruling may have been the preferable option.

Yes, there will be a flurry of efforts to roll back gun controls in other cities, and expand gun ownership rights. The National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobbying group, is backing lawsuits against Chicago, Detroit and New York, which have laws similar to, but less draconian, than DC.

There are fears, too, that the decision will prove the thin end of the anti-gun control wedge. If handgun ownership is fine, then why not the possession of semi-automatic rifles and assault weapons? And shouldn't a man have the right to carry a gun with him in the street, concealed or unconcealed? And, for that matter, what's wrong with citizens being allowed to install mortars in their back gardens to repel marauders? All, of course, in the name of those "well regulated Militias", so relevant in their day, so dear to the Founding Fathers.

In fact, I doubt there will be any increase in the shooting rampages. The court majority made clear that it was not seeking to remove existing prior checks on would-be gun purchasers, or the ban on gun ownership by criminals and the mentally ill.

Nor, foreign readers will be mightily relieved to hear, have the justices made life harder for Barack Obama, the world's overwhelmingly preferred option for the White House in November. The Democrats have long tried to lay to rest notions they are anti-gun – remember those pictures from campaign 2004, of candidate John Kerry dressed up in hunting camouflage, rifle at the ready, out at dawn to slaughter ducks in swing-state Ohio? Obama himself is on the record as supporting individual gun rights. Probably, the court has taken the issue off the political table, and with it one of the Republican election-winning troika of "God, guns and gays".

Finally, and to return to where the ruling was specifically directed, it will have no impact on the crime rate here in Washington DC. Three-quarters of the city's 181 murders last year were carried out with guns, despite the ban that has now been overturned. Alas for the district, it has an undefended border with the great Commonwealth of Virginia, whose most recent contribution to gun control was to limit a person's purchase of handguns to one per month.

But suppose for an instant the justices had done the truly unexpected, and opposed individual handgun ownership. The NRA would have gone berserk; guns would be right, left and centre in the election campaign, and the authorities would be confronting the nightmare of 200 million-plus weapons out there, many of them now illegal. Now that would have been the stuff of banner headlines.

The real lesson of last week, obscured in the fog of jurisprudence, is another. In this most legalistic of countries, the ruling has demonstrated the vast importance of the Supreme Court. We have George Bush, who appointed two of the nine justices, to thank for the body's present conservative tilt. But at least two, perhaps three, vacancies are likely soon. If a President Barack Obama can shift the balance back, it will be his most enduring legacy.