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.
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."
He can afford to.
In the interview, Levy recalled his working-class roots in the Petworth area of Northwest Washington, where his parents ran a small hardware store. If there was a gun under the counter or in their home, he said, he never saw it.
After getting a doctorate in business from American University in 1966, he left the city for Silver Spring and started a company in his home: CDA Investment Technologies. Using the limited computer power available then, CDA analyzed and reported on the performances of securities, money managers and institutional portfolios.
Business boomed. By 1986, when he sold the company to a Dutch publishing giant, CDA had offices in Rockville, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo and London. The terms of the deal weren't disclosed, but Levy said he got plenty.
"Selling it allowed me to pursue whatever new opportunities I wanted to pursue without any financial pressures at all," he said. He decided to get a law degree and indulge his longtime interest in public policy. He had been contributing money to the Cato Institute for years, and in 1997, Cato hired him as a fellow, giving him a pulpit from which to espouse his views on limited government and the sanctity of personal freedoms.
The Second Amendment is just one of his areas of interest, and not the biggest one, Levy said. The right of the people to keep and bear arms isn't a right he ever needed to exercise.
"Even when I lived up there, I didn't live in D.C.," he said. "I lived in Chevy Chase, in a high-rise that was secure. And before that in Potomac. Not exactly high-risk areas."
The Chevy Chase high-rise is in Montgomery County. Levy and his wife sold the condo two years ago for $2.6 million and moved to Naples. They spend summers in their million-dollar home in Lake Biltmore, N.C., a resort area in the southwest corner of the state.
He said he visits Washington about once a month, but he steers clear of the neighborhood where he grew up. "Today it's an area of drug sales, a lot of crime," he said.
"I mean, where my dad's store was, you don't want to walk around there at night anymore."