Commentary

You Can Fight City Hall

The Framers of our Constitution believed that people had a natural right to protect themselves from aggression. The D.C. government has a different view. Here in the nation’s capital, our city council believes that everyone — criminals and victims alike — should be disarmed. Since 1976 the District has maintained one of the most draconian gun bans in the nation. No handgun can be registered in the District, pistols registered prior to DC’s 1976 law may not be carried — even from room to room in the home — without a license, and all firearms in the home must be unloaded and either disassembled or bound by a trigger lock. In effect, no one in D.C. can possess a functional firearm in his own residence.

Well, if you’ve spent any time in D.C., you know how well that policy’s working out. The murder rate is over 55 percent higher than it was before the ban went into effect. Violent criminals continue to carry guns, and the law-abiding citizens that the District has disarmed are at their mercy.

But all that may soon change. On Monday, Feb. 10, three other local attorneys and I filed suit in federal court to force the District government to end the gun ban. (Note: though two of us work at the Cato Institute, this lawsuit is not a Cato project. It is being privately funded and litigated pro bono.)

Our suit is based on the right of responsible adult citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense in the home — a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. On behalf of six D.C. residents, we’re asking the federal court for the District of Columbia to prevent D.C. from barring the registration of handguns, banning the possession of functional firearms within the home, and forbidding firearms from being carried from room to room without a license.

Our plaintiffs, like many other District residents, have been left defenseless by the city council’s quixotic quest to make the nation’s capital a gun-free zone. Shelly Parker, our lead plaintiff, lives in a high-crime neighborhood and is active in community affairs. As a result of trying to make her neighborhood a better place to live, she’s been threatened by drug dealers. Understandably, she’d like to own a functional handgun to protect herself in her home. But she can’t own one without risking arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and fine because of D.C.’s unconstitutional gun ban. Another plaintiff, Rich Heller, is a private security guard who is licensed to carry a gun while on the job protecting federal judges and employees at the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center. But Heller is barred by D.C. law from having a gun at home. As he puts it, “I’m able to protect people’s lives at work, but I’m not allowed to go home, where there are open-air drug markets, and defend myself.”

The D.C. government has done a marvelous job of disarming people like our plaintiffs: peaceful, law-abiding folks who, as President Clinton used to put it, “work hard and play by the rules.” It’s done little or nothing to disarm violent criminals. And the D.C. government has fought very hard to establish the principle that it does not have any legally enforceable duty to defend the citizens it’s disarmed from the criminals it hasn’t disarmed.

This is outrageous. It’s also unconstitutional. That’s why we’re going to court to vindicate our plaintiffs’ Second Amendment rights. We’re convinced that the time is right for such a challenge, and that the D.C. statute is vulnerable. For decades, that amendment had been consigned to the status of a constitutional inkblot. But legal scholars, executive branch officials, and the courts are starting to recognize that the amendment means what it says.

In October 2001 in United States v. Emerson, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Constitution “protects the right of individuals, including those not then actually a member of any militia … to privately possess and bear their own firearms … that are suitable as personal individual weapons.” Soon thereafter, Attorney General Ashcroft endorsed the Fifth Circuit’s reading, and the Justice Department filed two friend-of-the-court briefs reaffirming that the Second Amendment protects Americans’ right “to possess and bear their own firearms.” That’s what we’re fighting to establish. There is no right more fundamental than the right to self-defense; no government should be allowed to take that right away.

Gene Healy is an attorney and a senior editor at the Cato Institute.