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Lawyer Who Wiped Out D.C. Ban Says It's About Liberties, Not Guns
Levy knew only one of them: Tom G. Palmer, 50, a Cato colleague who is gay. Years ago in California, Palmer said, he brandished a pistol to scare off several men who he feared were about to attack him because of his sexual orientation. He said he wants to be able to legally defend himself in his Washington home.
With some exceptions for police officers and others, the D.C. statute bars residents from owning handguns unless they were registered before 1976, the year the law was enacted. And it requires people with registered rifles or shotguns in their homes to keep them unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks, meaning they cannot legally be used for self-defense.
"Ridiculous," Levy said.
In a 2 to 1 decision issued March 9, the appellate panel agreed with the plaintiffs that the gun restrictions violate the Second Amendment. The statute remains in effect, at least temporarily, while attorneys for the city consider their next legal move. The case could be headed to the Supreme Court, and it could affect other strict gun laws across the country.
Levy, who is mainly a writer and lecturer, is one of three plaintiff's attorneys in the case, his first direct involvement in litigation since he graduated from George Mason University law school in 1994, when he was 53. One of his co-counsels, Neily, is working on the lawsuit for free. The other, Alan Gura, a high-priced civil litigation specialist, was hired by Levy to serve as lead counsel and argue the case in court.
"To take something like this all the way through the Supreme Court, you're talking about several hundred thousand dollars," Levy said. But because Gura is charging a reduced rate, "it hasn't been nearly that much." Levy wouldn't cite a figure but said it was "a considerable sum." Whatever the price, he said, "happily, I'm in a position to pay it."
When the D.C. Council passed the restrictions three decades ago, it was trying to curb gun violence. Supporters of the law warn that if the appellate ruling stands and the District is forced to enact a weaker statute, permitting loaded weapons in homes, more shootings are sure to result, by accident and on purpose. Meanwhile, if pistols become legal in homes, many residents probably would acquire them, giving thieves more guns to steal and sell on the streets.
Like other critics of the law, Levy cites the District's annual triple-digit homicide totals and its "ridiculously high rate of crime" in the past 30 years as evidence that the statute has not made Washington safer. Its only impact, he said, has been to disarm honest residents in their homes, leaving them vulnerable in a violent city.
To Levy the libertarian, though, the effectiveness of the law -- its success or failure in curbing crime -- isn't the core issue. What matters most to him is whether the statute unjustly infringes on personal liberties. He doesn't dispute that "reasonable" gun controls are permissible under the Second Amendment. But the District's law amounts to "an outright prohibition," Levy said, and "that offends my constitutional sensibilities."
So he opened his wallet and did something about it.
Because of his and Tom Palmer's involvement in the case, Levy said, a mistaken impression has spread that the Cato Institute instigated the lawsuit. "They love this case and they've been very, very supportive," he said. But Cato is a think tank, not a law firm, and hasn't so much as filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "This is my venture," Levy said.
The lawsuit failed last year in U.S. District Court, prompting the appeal that succeeded this month. Although gun-rights advocates and other organizations have offered to aid the case financially, Levy said, "I've taken nothing. Zero." The reason: "I don't want this portrayed as litigation that the gun community is sponsoring. . . . I don't want to be beholden to anyone. I want to call the shots, with my co-counsel."