07/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Key Right Recaptured

June 26 was a historic day. A majority of the US Supreme Court agreed with the vast majority of Americans in asserting that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms for his or her own defense. And personal defense is what it is all about, why the issue is so emotional. Those who have contrived all sorts of tortured linguistics over the past thirty years to reinterpret the Second Amendment as merely a collective right for members of a militia, at root are concerned about safety. Individuals can't be trusted with guns. Gun bans are the silver bullet to safe homes and streets. Those who understand the right as individual want the same thing, safe homes, safe streets. The right of self-defence has rightly been regarded as the first law of nature, a right no government can take away. That is why the Founders protected the right to be armed. Police cannot be everywhere. If they can't protect women who have taken out restraining orders on abusive partners, how can they protect the rest of us?

Yet the D.C. gun ban did deprive residents of the right to protect themselves, by banning possession of handguns in the home and insisting any long guns be kept disassembled and locked, even in the case of a break-in. It was illegal to carry the gun from one room to another in your home. Presumably you were to wait for the housebreaker to reach the room where your gun was stored, or await police rescue.

Mayor Fenty, in taking the appeal to the Supreme Court after the ban was struck down by the court of appeals, insisted he could not stand by and let people die. Two problems here. First the law made it certain that innocent people would die. After thirty years of this gun ban D.C. remains one of the nation's most violent cities. No usable handguns in the possession of law-abiding residents, but plenty in the hands of criminals.

Second, in 1981, after the D.C. ban went into effect, two women living in a Washington telephoned 911 that two men had broken into their home. They called 911 repeatedly. No one came. For fourteen hours the two men beat and abused these women. Later the two women sued the police for failing to come to their aid. The D.C. government defended the police and their emergency network. The court ruled that "a government and its agencies are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen." Here is an instance of a collective right ... everyone is protected but no one individual is.

A government that cannot protect people should not deprive them of the right to protect themselves. No one should have to be a victim. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, noted that they took seriously concerns about handgun violence, but, as he put it, "the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home." "It is not the role of this Court," he concluded, "to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."