One of the most violent countries in the first world — with almost as many guns as people — took another step away from gun control Monday, as the US Supreme Court struck down a handgun law in Chicago. Or as the National Rifle Association put it, a “constitutional victory” under constant threat from “activist judges, defiant city councils, and cynical politicians”.

The decision, which came down just hours before the Senate began confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court’s newest nominee Solicitor-General Elena Kagan, drew national attention back to the controversial Second Amendment that affords Americans the right to bear arms.

Kagan will be comfortably confirmed at the next associate justice as long as she doesn’t say anything to cause a Senate filibuster in the next few days. Unfortunately for the former dean of Harvard Law School, who has no judicial experience but an impeccable legal CV, she probably practiced her speech on abortion rights rather than gun laws. The abortion issue has dominated every confirmation hearing since Roe v Wade, until now.

Instead, the Democratic senators lined up to take shots at the current Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, for tearing down bi-partisan election finance restrictions and raging a conservative culture war.

Republican senators used the same ‘activist judge’ language to demand Kagan commit to being no more than an umpire calling balls, and strikes, a metaphor from Justice Roberts’ confirmation. Neither group mentioned abortion, but many took issue with the gun decision.

“Common sense state and local gun laws across the country now will be subject to federal lawsuits,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said.

“I believe the proliferation of guns have made this nation less safe, not more safe. We now have more guns than people in this country. They are sold everywhere: on street corners, in gun shows, with no restraint whatsoever, any type of weapon. They fall into the hands of juveniles, criminals and the mentally ill virtually every day of the year. And the Supreme Court has thrown aside seven decades of precedent to exacerbate this situation.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s conservative gang of four in the decision. Kennedy is now the sole swing vote, deciding most contentious issues alone.

In another decision handed down on Monday, Kennedy sided with the liberal wing which ruled a San Francisco law school could deny official recognition to a Christian student group which wanted to bay gay members.

Gay rights are also a contentious topic for Supreme Court nominees, but especially Elena Kegan, who has faced rumours about her s-xual orientation — denied by the White House — and sought to defend anti-discrimination policies when military recruiters sought access to Harvard Law School. Some politicians have seen Kagan’s role in that issue as evidence of pro-gay, anti-military sentiment.

Kagan promised senators impartiality and modesty if confirmed for the Supreme Court: “I’ve learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide. I’ve learned that we come closest to getting things right when we approach every person and every issue with an open mind.”

Meanwhile, local press in Chicago has reported 29 shootings and three deaths occurred on the weekend prior to the court’s decision to overturn the handgun law. In the last four years, retail giant Walmart has scaled back the number of stores that carry firearms by almost a third, and stopped over-the-counter handgun sales entirely, a move angering the National Rifle Association.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the lobby group was concerned Americans in rural areas may no longer have access to guns, and sought dialogue with the retailer. “They’ve said it’s a business decision, not a political decision,” he said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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