Today's Papers

Year of the Gun

All the papers lead with the Supreme Court’s ruling for the first time in history that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun. The justices—split along traditional ideological grounds and by a 5-4 vote—struck down the District of Columbia ban on handguns, the strictest gun-control law in the country. The Washington Postnaturally devotes most of its front-page real estate to the ruling, noting that it “wiped away years of lower court decisions that had held that the intent of the amendment … was to tie the right of gun possession to militia service.” The New York Timessays Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion was “his most important in his 22 years on the court.” The Wall Street Journal points out that “[f]or the third time this month, a major constitutional issue was decided by a single vote—that of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the maverick conservative” who had sided with the court’s liberal wing in the Guantanamo and child-rapist cases but yesterday lined up with the conservatives.

In his majority opinion, Scalia took pains to emphasize that the “decision, while historic, was narrow and its practical effects limited,” says the Los Angeles Times. The individual right to gun ownership is not unlimited, and Scalia said the court would uphold restrictions on concealed, as well as “dangerous and unusual,” weapons and laws that prohibit firearms from government buildings and schools. “Beyond that, the court did not address what types of regulations would survive legal challenges,” notes USA Today’s lead that says the decision “immediately cast doubt on gun restrictions nationwide.” The LAT points out that yesterday’s decision “brought immediate court challenges to similar laws in Chicago and San Francisco.”

Advocates for gun rights praised the ruling and said the decision provides them with a clear opening to issue a variety of legal challenges to existing restrictions on the ownership of firearms. But gun-control advocates also said they were at least heartened by the fact that the court didn’t dismiss all restrictions on firearms as unconstitutional. In a scathing dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that yesterday’s decision would likely lead to a new era of judicial involvement in an issue that is best left to elected lawmakers. In reality, though, the ruling “will have little practical impact in most of the country,” says the NYT in a Page One analysis. It is likely to be felt mostly in a few urban areas that have the most restrictive gun-control laws.

In their opinions, Scalia and Stevens “went head to head in debating how the 27 words in the Second Amendment should be interpreted,” notes the NYT. Stevens emphasized that the right to own a weapon exists only “in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia,” while Scalia said that the militia part of the amendment isn’t meant as a limit on the pre-existing right to bear arms. The two also sharply disagreed on the 1939 decision that was the last time the issue was analyzed by the court and has been widely interpreted as a rejection of the individual-rights argument for possessing firearms.

The presidential candidates both quickly praised the decision, although Sen. John McCain was a bit more effusive than Sen. Barack Obama. McCain called it “a landmark victory” that brings to an end “the specious argument” that there’s no individual right to gun ownership. For his part, Obama said the decision protects the rights of gun owners but also emphasized that this protection “is not absolute.”

The WP and LAT both publish opinion pieces that argue yesterday’s decision involved the court’s conservative wing displaying its most activist instincts. In the LAT, Erwin Chemerinsky writes that the ambiguity of the Second Amendment should have led the justices to follow precedent and allow lawmakers to decide the issue. Instead, the majority took matters into their own hands in “a powerful reminder that the conservative justices are activists when it serves their political agenda,” writes Chemerinsky. In the Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. agrees and says the conservative justices once again demonstrated “their willingness to abandon precedent in order to do whatever is necessary to further the agenda of the contemporary political right.” The decision serves as a good reminder “that judicial activism is now a habit of the right.”

It’s Election Day in Zimbabwe, and those who don’t vote risk being beaten or killed, notes the NYT inside. President Robert Mugabe has refused to bow to international pressure and insisted the vote will go on as scheduled, even though his opponent dropped out of the race and violence has engulfed the country. Zimbabweans will likely be rounded up and taken to the polls, where many believe that if they don’t vote for Mugabe they will face retribution. “If you don’t show your finger that you’ve voted, you’ll be beaten,” explained opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who tells the WP that he’s boycotting the elections and will “do nothing” today.

So who’s going to do the beating and killing? Young men whose “life has come down to a painfully simple equation: If you don’t beat your victim hard enough, you may be the next victim,” reports the LAT. Mugabe’s thugs have often been portrayed as ruthless villains, but the LAT talks to three who sound more like scared children than vicious killers as they describe how they want to escape but fear the militia would capture them or kill their families. They also tell the LAT that young women and girls as young as 15 are being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for the militias. It’s another must-read story from the LAT, whose reporter has been writing some of the best, most detailed accounts of the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe that manage to illustrate how regular citizens are caught in the middle of the horror.

The NYT fronts and the WSJ goes inside with interesting looks at why exactly South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, has refused to criticize Mugabe and continues to insist on mediation. The world is puzzled by Mbeki’s approach, which the NYT characterizes as “walking softly, carrying no stick,” but it’s the result of his close personal relationship with Mugabe as well as his political convictions and a reluctance to allow the Western world to meddle in Africa’s affairs. Tsvangirai has called for Mbeki to step down from his role as the region’s appointed mediator.

The NYT, LAT, and WP front President Bush’s announcement that North Korea will be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism after Pyongyang provided long-awaited details about its nuclear efforts. Although the move is largely portrayed as symbolic, the NYT highlights that it demonstrates how Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to win “a major battle” against Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies, who are none too happy about the move.

The country that Bush once designated as part of the “axis of evil” provided details about its main nuclear effort, but everyone says there was lots missing from the report, particularly any information about assembled nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also provided no details about a suspected uranium-enrichment program, which has led some to speculate that perhaps North Korea will continue secret efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Early-morning wire stories report that, as had been announced, North Korea destroyed a 60-foot-tall cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear plant.

Everyone notes the bad day at the stock market. Oil prices continued to increase, and the Dow Jones industrial average fell to its lowest level in almost two years. Although it seems like just yesterday that many were saying the economy would rebound in the second half of the year, there are doubts about whether that will actually happen. Financial firms continue to lose money, and consumers are highly pessimistic about the state of the economy.

The WP’s Steven Pearlstein writes that no one should expect the economy to rebound in the near future. “This thing’s going down, fast and hard,” he writes, while noting that this downturn will be different from most because it’s “a recession with an overlay of inflation.” The inconvenient combination is particularly difficult for the Federal Reserve to deal with, because trying to fix one problem makes the other worse. “Don’t let anyone fool you: It will be a while before things return to normal.”

Starting next week, smokers won’t be allowed to light up in cafes, bars, restaurants, and clubs in the Netherlands. Well, light up cigarettes, at least. USAT reports that while smoking a joint at a coffee shop will still be perfectly legal, smoking cigarettes will be forbidden. Naturally, people are confused, particularly since many Europeans are used to mixing a little tobacco with their marijuana. “I will have to ask, ‘What’s in that joint?’ ” one coffee shop owner said. “It’s going to make it pretty difficult to enforce.”