Commentary

Court, Capital and Handgun

In the next couple of weeks, the Supreme Court is likely to announce whether it will hear the Washington, D.C., handgun ban case. Handgun bans exist in only half a dozen U.S. cities, because although gun control is sometimes popular, gun prohibition is not.

In 1976, the District of Columbia City Council banned the possession of any handguns not already possessed and registered by residents, and the use of any gun for self-defense. That same year, Massachusetts voters were asked by referendum whether to ban handguns. The left-leaning state had been the only one to vote for George McGovern in the previous presidential election.

The “People vs. Handguns” campaign was “supported by most of the state’s press,” according to Time magazine. But 69 percent of the state’s voters rejected it.

Gun prohibitionists tried again in California in 1982, proposing a “handgun freeze,” allowing current owners to keep their handguns but banning any new acquisitions. The measure was crushed by a vote of 63 to 37 percent. The freeze’s opponents brought so many additional voters to the polls that they even carried Republican George Deukmejian to a 1 percent victory over Tom Bradley in the governor’s race.

The gun prohibition movement successfully lobbied the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove to ban handguns in 1981. Chicago itself followed suit in 1983, and the suburbs of Evanston, Oak Park and Wilmette also enacted handgun bans.

The Chicagoland bans got a lot of press, and the national backlash against them was powerful. State after state passed preemption laws, forbidding localities from banning handguns. Today, an astonishing 45 states have preemption laws, including Texas and California, whose law has stopped two efforts to impose handgun prohibition in San Francisco.

By the early 1990s, local handgun bans had been outlawed almost everywhere in the United States. One of the few states without a preemption law was Wisconsin, which bordered the one state where handgun bans existed. Yet even in left-leaning cities in the state, handgun prohibition was rejected: by 51 percent in Madison in 1993, then by 67 percent in Milwaukee and 73 percent in Kenosha in 1994.

The D.C. handgun ban is a very rare, extreme and unconstitutional prohibition.”

The Wisconsin gun ban campaigns did have important consequences. The Legislature enacted a preemption law, and in 1998, 73 percent of voters approved the addition of a right-to-arms clause to the state constitution.

The Brady Campaign denies that it supports handgun prohibition, but the group lobbies Congress and fights in the courts to preserve the D.C. handgun ban. That ban is aberrational not only by U.S. standards but internationally.

In Europe, almost all nations allow the possession of licensed handguns. Of the exceptions — Russia, Luxembourg, England, Scotland and Ireland — all but Ireland have murder and violent crime rates much worse than that of their neighbors and other nearby countries that don’t ban handguns.

Despite hysterical fundraising campaigns by anti-gun lobbyists, a Supreme Court decision against the D.C. handgun ban would not invalidate the vast number of laws regulating but not banning these weapons in the U.S. Indeed, overturning even the Chicago bans would require a definitive future ruling on whether the Second Amendment is enforceable against state and local governments, or only against the federal government and federal enclaves such as D.C.

Millions of Americans own firearms and use them responsibly, and that right is guaranteed under the Second Amendment. The D.C. handgun ban is a very rare, extreme and unconstitutional prohibition. If the Supreme Court were to affirm the lower court’s decision against the handgun ban, it would end the shame of our nation’s capital city depriving its residents of a right that legislatures and courts have protected almost everywhere else in the United States.

David Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute.