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Politics of US court's gun ruling

26 June 08 22:27 GMT

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Washington DC handgun ban is likely to have legal and political consequences.

The legal ones are not yet clear. Much depends on whether this federal ruling is seen as applying to other states or cities, which have similarly tough gun laws.

In his majority brief, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted future, complex legal arguments about some of the restrictions, which the court had ruled were valid, such as denying the sale of guns to convicted felons or people with mental illnesses and outlawing their possession, in places such as schools.

But - with the presidential campaign well under way - the political impact has been immediate.

'Elitist view'

Both leading candidates have offered their views on the ruling.

First out of the blocks was Republican, John McCain, who had filed his own brief in support of the plaintiff in the case, DC security guard Dick Heller.

He applauded the Court's decision and wasted no time in taking a swipe at his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.

Referring to the comment made by the Illinois Senator during the primary season, about bitter, working class Americans "who cling to guns and religion", Senator McCain said "unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today's ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right - sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly".

His goal was transparent.

He wanted to use the court's decision to reinforce the impression that his opponent is an elite liberal, out of touch with the views of hard-working, gun-owning Americans.

Democrats have traditionally had a hard time dealing with gun issues and Barack Obama is no exception.

Who benefits?

Last year, a spokesman for his campaign said that Senator Obama felt the tough DC gun law was constitutional, although, as time has gone on, the candidate himself has taken a more detached view of the case in public.

He certainly took more time to react to the Court's decision than John McCain and, when he did, he said that supporting gun rights and some gun controls was not a contradiction, emphasising the part of the Court's ruling, which stressed that the right to own arms was not unlimited.

And the candidate - who was once a community worker in Chicago's South Side - referred to his empathy with the issue of urban, gun-related crime:

"I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms," he said, "but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common sense, effective safety measures."

So - who benefits most?

The answer is, it probably does not matter that much.

A candidate's view on gun control is unlikely to sway more than a small percentage of voters in November and, while John McCain may have improved his stock among those gun owners, who have objected to some of his positions on gun issues, Barack Obama's nuanced response probably will not have changed voters' views of him that much.

Yet, for all his talk of change, the Democratic presidential candidate probably shares one thing with his predecessors: the hope that the gun debate goes away soon.

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