IN OVERTURNING the District of Columbia's long-standing ban on handguns yesterday, a federal appeals court turned its back on nearly 70 years of Supreme Court precedent to give a new and dangerous meaning to the Second Amendment. If allowed to stand, this radical ruling will inevitably mean more people killed and wounded as keeping guns out of the city becomes harder. Moreover, if the legal principles used in the decision are applied nationally, every gun control law on the books would be imperiled.
The 2 to 1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down sections of a 1976 law that bans city residents from having handguns in their homes. The court also overturned the law's requirement that shotguns and rifles be stored disassembled or with trigger locks. The court grounded its unprecedented ruling in the finding that the Second Amendment right to bear arms extends beyond militias to individuals. The activities the Second Amendment protects, the judges wrote, "are not limited to militia service, nor is an individual's enjoyment of the right contingent upon his or continued intermittent enrollment in the militia."
Never before has a law been struck down on that basis. The Supreme Court, in its landmark 1939 decision United States v. Miller, stated that the Second Amendment was adopted "with obvious purpose" of protecting the ability of states to organize militias and "must be interpreted and applied with that end in view." Nearly every other federal court of appeals has concurred in that finding. The dissenting judge in yesterday's opinion, Karen LeCraft Henderson, a Republican appointee like the other two judges on the panel, rightly lambasted the majority for its willful disregard of Supreme Court precedent.
While the ruling caught observers off guard, it was not completely unexpected, given the unconscionable campaign, led by the National Rife Association and abetted by the Bush administration, to broadly reinterpret the Constitution so as to give individuals Second Amendment rights. Indeed, the D.C. lawsuit, by six residents assisted by the Cato Institute, was filed in 2003, just months after then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said gun bans are unconstitutional.
The NRA predictably welcomed yesterday's ruling. According to its myth, only criminals have had guns in the city and now law-abiding citizens will be able to arm themselves for protection. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) counters that argument with the sad record of what results from a proliferation of guns. As he points out, more guns mean only more violence, and the city already has too much of both. It is important to note that the ban on handguns will stay in effect while the city considers whether to appeal.
That is likely, Mr. Fenty announced. The risk here is that an appeal could lead to an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, and a legal principle that now applies only to the residents of the nation's capital would extend to the entire nation. Yet doing nothing wouldn't serve the best interests of the city and its public safety. Nor, for that matter, would it serve the nation's interest to leave this dangerous ruling unchallenged.