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Supreme Court to address limits of gun control

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
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Chicago's gun ban battle
  • Supreme Court to rule on Chicago's longstanding ban on handguns
  • Court to decide whether state, local gun control laws violate "right to keep and bear arms"
  • Also at issue: Can an individual's right to own weapon apply beyond federal jurisdiction?
  • Arguments set Tuesday in the closely-watched Second Amendment case

Chicago, Illinois (CNN) -- Otis McDonald and Diane Latiker share much in common as residents of Chicago's South Side. Longtime community activists, they both have seen the good and bad their neighborhoods have to offer.

They are each fighting for change, especially to stem the growing murder rates among African-American and Hispanic youths, who are dying at the hands of one another.

Their solutions to the problem put them at odds, however; and their struggles -- part of larger crisis striking cities nationwide -- will be the backdrop for one of the biggest cases to come before the Supreme Court in years.

At issue is one the justices have been timid over the decades at confronting: Just how far does the Second Amendment give citizens the right to protect themselves?

The court will ultimately decide two fundamental questions: Do strict state and local gun control laws violate the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms"? And can an individual's right to own a weapon extend beyond federal jurisdiction?

The basic questions have remained largely unanswered and give the conservative majority on the high court another chance to allow Americans expanded rights to own weapons. The amendment states: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The specific case deals with Chicago's longstanding ban on handguns. Latiker supports the law; McDonald is fighting it in court.

Gun control is one of those hot-button social issues that stirs energies on competing sides. The ruling's impact will be felt across the country as local communities wrestle with whether banning the cheapest, most commonly available firearm will reduce violent crime or leave honest citizens vulnerable.

Meet 'Mama D'

"What's up, Mama D?" 16-year-old Anthony asks as he enters Latiker's house on South Michigan Avenue.

In the dining room, the music is thumping, chairs have been set aside, and teenage girls are teaching each other how to dance. Steps away in a cozy closet, several boys are laying down surprisingly professional-sounding tracks in a converted music studio. The rap lyrics are honest, raw.

"Where do we go from here, how do we stop the pain, ignorance we should fear ...

Losing lives is the cost, maybe we insane, look at the lives we done lost

Man, it pours when it rains, I was born in the flames, born into pain"

Presiding over all the chaos is Latiker, who greets each of the three dozen youths with a hug and a look that tells them respect and discipline are expected.

Diane Latiker says the city has to do something to stop the fear and pain of the violence.
Diane Latiker says the city has to do something to stop the fear and pain of the violence.

To them, she is "Ms. Diane" or "Mama D," a surrogate mother. From the ground floor of her own home, Latiker heads Kids Off the Block, a 7-year-old nonprofit she founded to provide at-risk teens a refuge from the streets. She and her volunteers offer tutoring, mentoring, sports, arts and out-of-town trips. At least 200 youths are enrolled in the program.

"They come here because they say that it's a house of opportunity and a house of hope," she said recently. "Because they feel they can get jobs, they can get into college, they can express themselves without being judged and that we listen."

Latiker has lived in the Roseland area for 26 years and has seen what the streets can do to the promise of youth. "They walk looking backwards. If you would stay here two days, you would realize how young people walk looking backwards at every car, because of drive-by shootings."

Handgun ban passed in 1982

Chicago passed its ban on handguns in 1982, one of the most restrictive in the U.S. It is that law that is being challenged in the Supreme Court.

A study last year by economist Carl Moody of William & Mary College found that after the ban was imposed, city crime rates rose significantly, almost immediately. The city is more dangerous now than it was before the ban, the study concluded, relative to the 24 largest American cities.

Officials here point to a 10 percent reduction in the murder rate in the past two years as proof that the handgun ban is beginning to work. Figures show that 81 percent of the murders in the city were gun-related; nearly 60 percent were gang-related.

But another statistic has police and parents deeply disturbed. Chicago has surpassed Los Angeles with the highest youth homicide rate in the nation. In the 2008-09 school year, a record 36 city public school students were murdered, mostly by underage gang members, according to police data. It was the third straight year the numbers had risen.

Otis McDonald has seen the problem escalate in his Morgan Park neighborhood. He takes a reporter on a tour of his residential street, where he has lived since 1972.

Otis McDonald, recruited by gun rights activists, is the key plaintiff in the high court appeal.
Otis McDonald, recruited by gun rights activists, is the key plaintiff in the high court appeal.

"We wouldn't want to go down to the right here," he said, pointing across the block. "That's a hot area, I put it like this, where they're drug dealing and stuff."

The polite, thoughtful Louisiana native is the key plaintiff in the high court appeal, recruited by gun rights activists as the face of the individual standing up to protect his family and home. The case bears his name.

"The city, the county, the whole United States, we are in a war, simple as that," he said. "The innocent law-abiding citizens against the drug dealers and gang bangers."

He notes that his house has been broken into several times and that he's been threatened on the street by drug dealers who feel threatened by his neighborhood vigilance.

McDonald thinks a handgun in his home would send a message to would-be criminals.

"I feel defenseless, and I feel that something can be done to change this," he said. "All I want is just a fighting chance. Give me the opportunity to at least make somebody think about something before they come in my house on me."

Second Amendment issues

The larger constitutional issue is one that has polarized judges, politicians and the public for decades: Do the Second Amendment's 27 words bestow gun ownership as an individual right or as a collective one, aimed at the civic responsibilities of state militias and therefore subject, perhaps, to strict government regulation?

The justices said that such an individual right applies in Washington two years ago, when they tossed out a then-restrictive handgun ban. But that city is a federal enclave, and now the court is poised to address a far larger question: Is that regulation limited to federal laws, or can it be applied to local communities like Chicago?

"The Supreme Court has told us one of two important things, and that is that there is an individual right to bear arms. Now we are poised to find out whether that applies to state and local regulation," said Thomas Goldstein, a prominent Washington appellate attorney and co-founder of "That's really where the rubber hits the road, because there are all kinds of state rules about when you can have and carry a gun."

Forty-four state constitutions protect their residents' right to keep weapons, according to a brief filed by 32 state attorneys general in support of the individual weapon owners in the current appeals.

Some constitutional experts have noted that the Bill of Rights traditionally was applied only to the federal government, not to local entities. It was not until the past half-century that the Supreme Court has viewed free speech, assembly and the press -- among other rights -- as individual in nature, fundamental to liberty and superseding, in many cases, the power of states.

There have been limits. The high court has repeatedly refused to extend to states the Fifth Amendment requirement that persons can be charged with serious crimes only by "indictment of a grand jury." And courts have affirmed the right of states to place restrictions on who may possess guns (such as certain convicted felons), types of weapons (machine guns, sawed-off shotguns) and where they may be carried (post offices, near schools).

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of adult Americans in June 2008 -- the month the Washington ruling was issued -- found 67 percent of those surveyed thought the Second Amendment gave individuals the right to own guns. Thirty-three percent said it only provided citizens the right to form a militia. The poll had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Activist: A generation is dying

When Diane Latiker is asked why she strongly supports Chicago's handgun ban, she points across the street to an empty city lot. There, Kids Off the Block has erected a memorial to young people who lives were recently lost to gun violence. Large landscaping bricks with names of the victims and their ages are lined along neat rows.

"We have a generation that's dying, and it's growing because we as a community, as parents, as school officials, police department, politicians, have failed these young people. How many more are we going to fail?"

This 53-year-old mother of eight says the city has to do something to stop the fear and pain of the violence.

"We have enough guns in our communities already, you know, that we're afraid of, and now we've got to worry about everybody living next door to each other with guns and more guns" if the ban is repealed. "Our children are traumatized by the violence, and it's mostly gun violence."

Her grass-roots efforts at turning her home into a haven for at-risk kids -- many one-time gang members and troublemakers -- have earned her praise from city officials. Her next goal is to turn the empty lot where the memorial sits into a community center: more room, better facilities to serve an ever-growing number of young people desperate for a way out.

One young man who did not get that chance was Blair Holt, a 16-year-old honor student killed on a city bus in 2007, an innocent victim caught in the crossfire between rival gangs. Surveillance video on the bus showed Blair instinctively jumping on a fellow student to protect her.

Blair's father, Ronald Holt, is a Chicago police officer who also supports the handgun ban. His family created a foundation in Blair's name to help persuade the city's youth to turn away from violence.

"Every day, every time I pick up the newspaper and see another young person has been shot and unfortunately killed, brings back memories of when we lost Blair," he said. "You have to tap into the mindset and behavior of young people. You have to convince them to resolve a conflict does not always mean picking up a firearm and killing someone."

'Im thinking about tomorrow'

McDonald too says he cares about young people, despite his contempt for teen criminals in his neighborhood. The father of eight, he plans to be at the Supreme Court for arguments Tuesdays morning.

He wants the justices to know his city is on the wrong side of the law. "It's victimizing the citizens, it's telling me that you're a law-abiding citizen, but you can't have no gun, you're dangerous. Well, how can that be? I'm 76 years old. I've never shot nobody, and these 17-year-olds running around here have shot a whole bunch of people."

This grandfather says he is uncomfortable with the sudden spotlight but refuses to back down. "I'm thinking about tomorrow. Where will our young generation be tomorrow, and what will the world be like in five years, 10 years from now?"

The case is McDonald v. Chicago (08-1521).

CNN National Correspondent Kate Bolduan contributed to this report.