WASHINGTON (AP) - Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor told a
senator Thursday that she would follow a historic ruling affirming
Americans' right to own guns for self-defense, but pro-gun
activists said they still believe she'd work to limit gun rights if
confirmed for the high court.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said Sotomayor told him
during a private meeting that she considers the 2008 ruling that
struck down a Washington, D.C., handgun ban as settled law that
would guide her decisions in future cases. In District of Columbia
v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that individuals have a
constitutional right to guns.
But the statement gave little comfort to gun rights activists.
Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said that earlier in the
week, Sotomayor told him in a similar closed-door session that she
stood by an appellate court decision she signed this year that said
the Second Amendment protection from curbs on the right to bear
arms applied only to federal laws - not state or local ones. That
ruling, Maloney v. Cuomo, left it up to the Supreme Court to decide
whether the rights recognized in the Heller case applied throughout
The dueling statements called attention to a simmering and
politically fraught debate over gun rights that transcends partisan
lines. The issue is a tricky one for many Democrats who, like
Udall, hail from conservative-leaning states in the South and West
and often find themselves at odds with their party's liberal
leaders' strong support for gun control measures. They're under
intense pressure from gun rights advocates to oppose Sotomayor's
nomination, so pinning her down on the topic is a major concern.
Gun rights activists have cited the Maloney decision in accusing
Sotomayor of being hostile to gun rights. In the case, Sotomayor
and two other judges on the 2nd Circuit appeals court upheld a New
York state law banning the possession of "chuka sticks." They
said they were bound by an 1886 Supreme Court ruling - not by
Heller, which didn't address the question of whether the Second
Amendment applied to states.
Udall said he asked Sotomayor about her view of the Second
Amendment during their visit.
"Clearly she spoke to the fact that settled law is just that,
and the Heller case has been considered by the court, and she sees
that as the law, and she will work off of what the court decided as
other cases may come to the court's attention," Udall said.
DeMint also questioned Sotomayor about gun rights in a meeting
earlier this week, and later criticized her for refusing to say the
Second Amendment "protects a fundamental right that applies to all
Americans." He said Sotomayor's statement on Heller "doesn't tell
us much" about her view of the issue given the position she took
this year in Maloney.
If it were up to Sotomayor, DeMint said Thursday, Heller would
only apply to federal jurisdictions. "(H)er opinion was that the
hundreds of millions of Americans in the 50 states do not have a
fundamental right to bear arms. She refused to back away from that
opinion in my meeting with her," DeMint said Thursday.
In trying to pin her down on the issue, DeMint was essentially
asking Sotomayor to go beyond what the Supreme Court has already
said on gun rights - something high court nominees virtually never
do on any constitutional issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called her assertion "a meaningless
phrase without more context."
The National Rifle Association also wasn't satisfied.
"We still have serious concerns about positions she's taken in
the past, and the answer as far as following precedent is somewhat
meaningless, because it does not answer the question of where she
stands on the fundamental right of law-abiding Americans to keep
and bear arms," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.
The Supreme Court has applied to state and local laws only those
constitutional rights it views as "fundamental," and could
consider as early as this fall whether gun rights qualify. The NRA
last week appealed a federal appellate court ruling that upheld
Chicago's handgun ban on the grounds that Second Amendment
protections for gun owners apply only to federal laws.
The Gun Owners of America, another gun rights group, has already
come out in strong opposition to Sotomayor and is urging senators
to vote against her confirmation.
"We're communicating to the Senate that you may have cast some
pro-Second Amendment votes, but those are all going to be canceled
out if you vote for her, because when she gets (to the Supreme
Court), she's just going to cancel out everything you've voted for
anyway," Pratt said. He said the judge has "an unabated hostility
to individual gun ownership."
Sotomayor's statement Thursday didn't disturb proponents of gun
control measures, even though they were vehemently opposed to the
Paul Helmke of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said
Sotomayor was "doing what justices are supposed to do" - adhering
to existing law and precedent unless there's a good reason not to.
He said he was confident the judge, with her urban background and
experience as a prosecutor in Manhattan, would be an ally to those
working to reduce gun violence.
"She's seen what happens when you make it too easy for
dangerous people to get guns," Helmke said.