High Court May Review Personal Weapons Ruling

The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear a case in which Judge Sotomayor and two others upheld a New York state law banning the possession of a nunchucks. The question is whether the Second Amendment restricts the power of state governments to regulate personal weapons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. This debate over nunchucks gets some of us curious. You might wonder why New York State went to the trouble of banning nunchucks, and who's the guy who's trying to challenge the ban all the way to the Supreme Court? Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: To most little boys, nunchucks are just batons with bad attitudes. But James Maloney's fascination with nunchaku, as the experts apparently call them, has deeper roots.

Mr. JAMES MALONEY (Attorney): They're largely a defensive weapon. They're particularly a good defensive weapon against the knife. Knives are a horrible way to go. My father was stabbed to death in 1964. And so, you know, I was five years old, but that's a memory I've carried with me as I've grown up, and I've always been very concerned about being able to defend against a knife.

PESCA: Maloney is a man of varied pursuits, from environmental landscaping to innovative ukulele tuning techniques. His interest in martial arts started when he was a kid growing up in New Jersey. He became more comfortable with other weapons as a Merchant Marine.

While in that job, he trained as a paramedic, and while in his 30s went to law school - went from driving an ambulance to chasing them, he jokes. Maloney now finds himself as the country's foremost authority on nunchuck law. In the early 1970s, several movies were released in the U.S. depicting Bruce Lee using nunchucks to dispatch with hordes of thugs who attacked him one at a time.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man: Let me get him.

(Soundbite of nunchucks swinging)

(Soundbite of screaming)

PESCA: So in 1974, the state of New York passed the near total ban on what it called chucka sticks. Enter the dragon, exit the nunchuck, and fast forward to 2000, when a telephone repair man was working right outside Maloney's home office. Maloney peered at the repair man through a telescopic lens attached to a cane that he used for bird watching. The repairman thought it was a rifle.

Later, police came to the house. Maloney, who, when I interviewed him, was wearing a T-shirt with the words Void Where Prohibited by Law superimposed over the Bill of Rights, would not let the police in without a warrant.

Mr. MALONEY: They were actually, you know, fairly decent to deal with. But, the persistent problem was they wouldn't go away and they wouldn't get a warrant. So it was a stalemate.

PESCA: Twelve hours later, Maloney relented. The police found the nunchucks tucked away in his home, and since then, the case has worked its way through the courts. In addition to his legal fight, Maloney has founded the National Alliance for Relief from Nunchaku Intolerance in America, or NARNIA. In court, he has tried every manner of argument, from a free expression defense...

Mr. MALONEY: The twirling being expressive conduct.

PESCA: To a kind of do-you-realize-what-you're-saying defense. This is from the actual oral argument before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mr. MALONEY: Okay. Here, we're truly talking about two sticks connected by a cord.

PESCA: One of the judges in the room that day was, of course, Sonia Sotomayor. And some people are reading the court's ruling in that case as evidence that she would be an anti-gun-rights Supreme Court justice. Maloney, however, says that's unfair to the judge.

Mr. MALONEY: I did not expect to win. I'll say that much. And, you know, it was clear to me that they had a very solid basis for saying that the Second Amendment is not incorporated, and that essentially they are powerless to do anything about it. They had a defensible position there.

PESCA: This month, Maloney will file a motion for the Supreme Court to hear his case. And perhaps in Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, words like precedent and stare decisis will step aside for a moment and let nunchucks have their day.

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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