Lawyer Who Wiped Out D.C. Ban Says It's About Liberties, Not Guns

D.C. native Robert Levy, at his home in Naples, Fla., thinks the government interferes too much with people's liberties. He has bankrolled the lawsuit himself.
D.C. native Robert Levy, at his home in Naples, Fla., thinks the government interferes too much with people's liberties. He has bankrolled the lawsuit himself. (By Darron R. Silva)
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Meet the lawyer who conceived the lawsuit that gutted the District's tough gun-control statute this month. Meet the lawyer who recruited a group of strangers to sue the city and bankrolled their successful litigation out of his own pocket.

Meet Robert A. Levy, staunch defender of the Second Amendment, a wealthy former entrepreneur who said he has never owned a firearm and probably never will.

"I don't actually want a gun," Levy said by phone last week from his residence, a $1.7 million condominium in a Gulf Coast high-rise. "I mean, maybe I'd want a gun if I was living on Capitol Hill. Or in Anacostia somewhere. But I live in Naples, Florida, in a gated community. I don't feel real threatened down here."

He is 65, a District native who left the city 40 years ago for Montgomery County, a self-made millionaire who thinks the government interferes too much with people's liberties. He was an investment analyst before he sold his company for a fortune and enrolled in law school at age 49. Now he's a constitutional fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, working in his luxury condo 1,000 miles away.

It was his idea, his project, his philosophical mission to mount a legal challenge to the city's "draconian" gun restrictions, which are among the toughest in the nation. The statute offends his libertarian principles, Levy said. And it is entirely his money behind the lawsuit that led a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to strike down the statute this month, a ruling that stunned D.C. officials and gun-control advocates. The city said it will appeal the decision.

Levy, who moved to Florida two years ago, explained in an interview why he initiated the case, with Cato's blessing; why he has rejected offers of financial help, insisting on footing the bills himself; how he and a co-counsel searched for and vetted potential plaintiffs, finally settling on a diverse group of six people; and why he thinks letting D.C. residents keep loaded guns in their homes would not make the city a more dangerous place.

"By the way, I'm not a member of any of those pro-gun groups," he said. "I don't travel in those circles. My interest is in vindicating the Constitution."

Before they filed the lawsuit in February 2003, arguing that the city's gun statute violates the Second Amendment's language on the right to bear arms, Levy and Clark M. Neily III, a public-interest lawyer, spent months carefully assembling a cast of plaintiffs, Levy said.

"We wanted gender diversity," he said. "We wanted racial diversity, economic diversity, age diversity." The plaintiffs had to be D.C. residents who believed fervently in gun rights and wanted loaded weapons in their homes for self-defense. And they had to be respectable.

"No Looney Tunes," Levy said. "You know, you don't want the guy who just signed up for the militia. And no criminal records. You want law-abiding citizens."

He and Neily worked the phones. "We called all our contacts in the legal community," Levy said. "We looked at the newspapers: Who was writing on the subject? Who was sending letters to the editor about gun laws?" They scoured the city. "Friends lead you to other friends, and you just keep talking and talking to people, until finally you have your clients."

They found dozens of likely plaintiffs, Levy said. They went with three men and three women, from their mid-20s to early 60s, four of them white and two black. They found a mortgage broker from Georgetown and a neighborhood activist in a crime-scarred area of Northeast Washington. They also lined up a communications lawyer, a government office worker and a courthouse security guard. In their disparate walks of life, the six shared an eagerness to arm themselves.

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