Appeals Court Guts D.C. Gun Ban

By Bill Miller and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007 4:26 PM

A federal appellate panel today struck down parts of the District's gun law as unconstitutional, ruling that the city cannot bar people from keeping firearms in their homes.

The decision was a victory for six D.C. residents who said they wanted to keep firearms for self-defense. But it could have much broader implications: The case eventually could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court as a test of the thorny issues surrounding the Second Amendment and the public's right to keep weapons.

The District has one of the strictest gun laws in the nation -- barring all handguns unless they were registered prior to 1976 -- and that law has come under attack over the past three decades in Congress as well as the courts. Today's ruling guts key parts of the law, but does not address provisions that prohibit people from carrying unregistered guns outside the home.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called a news conference this afternoon to announce that the city would pursue additional appeals. "I am personally deeply disappointed and frankly outraged by this decision. It flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia," Fenty said.

He said the city will "do everything in our power to work to get the decision overturned and we will vigorously enforce our handgun laws during that time."

Tom G. Palmer, one of the six plaintiffs, said that the court's ruling will help residents protect themselves from being victims.

"Let's be honest: Although there are many fine officers in the police department, there's a simple test. Call Domino's Pizza or the police and time which one gets there first," he said. Palmer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a non-profit group that advocates personal liberties, which aided the plaintiffs.

The ruling came on a 2-to-1 vote by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman wrote the majority opinion, also signed by Thomas B. Griffith. Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented.

"We conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms," Silberman declared in the 58-page majority ruling.

The residents filed their lawsuit against the District in early 2003, months after then-Attorney Genral John D. Ashcroft declared that gun bans violate the Second Amendment.

The suit said the ban on handgun ownership violated the Second Amendment, which states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan dismissed the suit a year later, upholding the D.C. law, and saying the Second Amendment was narrowly tailored to membership in a "militia" -- which he defined as an organized military body.

The case moved on to the appellate court, with the National Rifle Association and numerous states siding with the pro-gun faction, and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and other states and cities joining with the District.

In the majority opinion, Silberman wrote that federal and state courts have been divided about the extent of protections covered by the Second Amendment. Some have sided with the position advocated by the District, that a "militia" means just that. Others have ruled that the amendment is broader, covering people who own guns for hunting or self-defense.

The Supreme Court addressed the Second Amendment in 1939, but it did not hold that the right to bear arms meant specifically that an individual could do so.

Today's majority opinion said that the District has a right to regulate and require registration of firearms but not to ban them outright in homes. The ruling also struck down a section of the D.C. law that required owners of registered guns to disassemble them, saying that would render the weapons useless.

Alan Gura, an attorney for the plaintiffs, issued a statement saying, "This is a tremendous victory for the civil rights of all Americans. The case has implications far beyond the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms. The court today affirmed that the Bill of Rights means what it says."

Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, issued the following statement: "The 2-1 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Parker v. District of Columbia striking down the District of Columbia's handgun law is judicial activism at its worst. By disregarding nearly seventy years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, two Federal judges have negated the democratically-expressed will of the people of the District of Columbia and deprived this community of a gun law it enacted thirty years ago and still strongly supports."

Silberman was nominated to the appellate court by President Ronald Reagan and Griffith was nominated by George W. Bush. Henderson was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.

Staff writers David Nakamura and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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