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By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A federal judge struck down the nation’s last complete prohibition on carrying guns outside the home, declaring the District of Columbia’s strict handgun ban unconstitutional.

The ruling by a federal judge in New York, announced late Saturday, is the latest blow to the decades-long gun law in the nation’s capital, which is plagued by violent crime. In 2008, the Supreme Court struck down the city’s handgun ban, establishing for the first time a personal right to own a weapon under the 2nd Amendment.

Senior District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., a former U.S. Army colonel appointed to the court by President George H. W. Bush, ruled that the right to a weapon extends outside the home both for residents and visitors to the city.

Going well beyond the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, Scullin found that carrying arms outside the home for self-defense falls within the legal definition of the right to bear arms enunciated in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

In the Heller case, the Supreme Court did not address whether the Second Amendment Amendment allowed someone to carry a weapon outside the home. The high court has repeatedly turned down invitations to decide that issue.

Scullin, who sits in Syracuse, N.Y., but was assigned the case by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., relied heavily on U.S. appellate court rulings striking down public-carry bans in San Diego County and Illinois.

Four plaintiffs and the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights advocacy group, challenged the D.C. ban as it was rewritten after the Supreme Court ruling. The revised law allowed police to issue gun permits for self-defense use only inside homes.

That process effectively prohibited nonresidents from obtaining permits and limited an individual’s right to self defense, according to the plaintiffs who challenged the law in 2009.

The case stalled on the District Court’s crowded docket and was eventually reassigned to Scullin with the goal of speeding up the process.

Although Scullin found that D.C.’s law violated Second Amendment rights, he said the government could place “some reasonable restrictions” on the carrying of handguns, such as bans in public schools, age restrictions, and mental-health requirements.

Such measures amount to a “proper balance” between gun rights and public safety, he wrote. A gun owner may simply decide not to enter a school, he said, and would experience “a lesser burden” on the right to self-defense.

Scullin did not stay enforcement of his ruling pending appeal, leading gun-rights groups to assert that it is now legal to openly carry a pistol in the district. The city is expected to seek a stay of the ruling either from Scullin or a federal appeals court.

Photo: Rob Bixby via Flickr

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