Commentary

Should Congress or the Courts Decide D.C. Gun Ban’s Fate?

Could the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress be undermining the best pro-gun case ever likely to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court?

More than four years ago, three attorneys and I filed Parker v. District of Columbia, a Second Amendment case on behalf of six local residents who want to defend themselves in their own homes.

For reasons that remain unclear, we faced repeated attempts by the NRA to derail the litigation. Happily, the case survived. On March 9, in a blockbuster opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the city’s gun ban — holding that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

Parker is the first federal appellate decision to invalidate a gun control statute on Second Amendment grounds. Federal circuit courts covering 47 states have held that there’s no recourse under the Second Amendment when state and local gun regulations are challenged. That means Parker could be headed to the Supreme Court.

Enter Congress and the NRA. First, Reps. Mike Ross, D-Ark., and Mark Souder, R-Ind., introduced the D.C. Personal Protection Act. Then, on March 28, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, followed suit in the Senate. Both bills, pushed hard by the NRA, would repeal the D.C. gun ban.

Ordinarily, that might be a good thing. But passage of the bills would kill the Parker litigation. It isn’t possible to challenge a law that has been repealed. Yet, Sen. Hutchison claims in her press release that she favors “both a legislative and judicial remedy. I hope the Parker case goes before the Supreme Court and that the court asserts that the right to bear arms is an individual, and not a collective, right. …”

Incredible.

When asked to clarify the NRA’s position, CEO Wayne LaPierre told us in a private meeting, “You can take it to the bank. The NRA will not do anything to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing Parker.”

Maybe so, but actions speak louder than words. The NRA’s aggressive promotion of the D.C. Personal Protection Act is baffling at best.

Parker is a much better vehicle to vindicate Second Amendment rights than an act of Congress. First, legislative repeal of the D.C. gun ban will not stop criminal defense attorneys and Public Defenders from citing the Second Amendment when they challenge “felon in possession” charges. Thus, if Parker is derailed, the next Second Amendment case to reach the Supreme Court could feature a murderer or drug dealer instead of six law-abiding citizens.

Second, a bill aimed at D.C. does only part of the job. It could be repealed by a more liberal Congress. And it will have no effect on state law outside of D.C. In effect, those who support the D.C. Personal Protection Act will be opposing an unambiguous Supreme Court proclamation on the Second Amendment, applicable across the nation.

Third, the Supreme Court is more conservative today than it’s been for some time, and probably more conservative than it’s going to be. In the unlikely event that five current justices decide to read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution by upholding a total ban on handguns, that would be the time for Congress to act. Until then, the D.C. Personal Protection Act is premature and counter-productive.

Meanwhile, if Congress wants to help, there are positive things it can do. D.C. has no federal firearms licensees. And handguns, unlike rifles and shotguns, can’t be purchased out of state. So even if Parker wins, D.C. residents could not buy a handgun.

Congress should allow interstate handgun sales as long as they comply with the law in both states. And Congress should change how D.C. processes gun registrations. The city requires multiple pictures, fingerprints, and on and on. The process can take months. Congress can mandate that D.C. officials accept the National Instant Check System used everywhere else.

My colleagues and I have drafted alternative legislation — now in the hands of selected senators —that accomplishes those objectives and more, without extinguishing the Parker suit.

Finally, the NRA has suggested that the D.C. Personal Protection Act is “must” legislation. But the D.C. handgun ban was enacted 31 years ago. Why is it only now that legislation must be passed — especially when the effect of that legislation will be to kill the best chance ever for the Supreme Court to affirm that the Second Amendment means what it says?

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies and served as co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Parker v. District of Columbia.