Oct. 15, 2012 – 6:06 p.m.

Former Justice Stevens: Inaction on Gun Control Baffling

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said Monday it is “mind-boggling” that Congress has not taken significant steps to address the problem of gun violence.

Stevens, the third-longest-serving justice in the court’s history, told an audience at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence that he is surprised Congress has largely sidestepped policy debates over what he called “the damage that is done by the unregulated use of firearms.” He said that omission is all the more surprising because of the amount of debate on the subject, which has been in the news after high-profile mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“When an issue is a subject both of such importance and such widespread discussion, the fact that Congress doesn’t address it, I find mind-boggling, to tell you the truth,” Stevens said in response to a question. He added that it is “particularly ironic because it’s an issue on which both sides are well-represented and there’s no hesitation in getting your views out into the public domain.”

Action on gun control legislation has been opposed by a coalition of Republicans and rural Democrats in Congress who say the Second Amendment protects gun ownership. Many states have loosened gun control laws in recent years, including by allowing gun owners to carry their weapons in more public places.

Stevens, 92, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican President Gerald R. Ford in 1975, but became the court’s leading liberal voice prior to his retirement in 2010. He dissented from several of the court’s high-profile rulings on gun control, including its historic 5-4 decision in a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, that found that the Constitution provides an individual, rather than a collective, right to bear arms.

On Monday, Stevens repeated his legal criticisms of that decision, which overturned a personal handgun ban imposed by the District of Columbia government. But he cast the debate forward by arguing that the ruling should not imperil other gun laws passed by localities, states or Congress, such as laws strengthening background checks for gun buyers or banning the possession of firearms in public places.

“The holding only relates to guns at home, and it specifically lists the possession of guns in certain sensitive public places as beyond the coverage of the amendment,” Stevens said.

Congress has done little on the subject of gun control despite recent mass shootings at a crowded movie theater in Colorado and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that elicited strong condemnations from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Some congressional Democrats, including Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer of New York, proposed policy action in response to the shootings, including the banning of online ammunition sales. Those proposals, however, have not advanced, with some Democratic senators citing the influence of the National Rifle Association in opposing any steps to tighten gun controls.

Neither President Obama nor his GOP opponent in the race for the White House, Mitt Romney, has made gun control a prominent campaign issue.