A Good Fight

Thursday, May 10, 2007

MAYOR ADRIAN M. Fenty (D) faces a decision now that a federal appeals court has let stand a ruling overturning the District's strict gun-control law. The interests of District residents mandate an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The District's longtime ban on keeping handguns in homes was ruled unconstitutional in March by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. It was the first time an appeals court overturned a gun-control law on grounds that the Second Amendment gives an individual the right to own firearms. The prevailing interpretation of most courts had been that the Constitution provides only for a collective right to bear arms -- for state militias, in other words. The disappointing refusal by the full appeals court to grant a rehearing on this crucial question sets up a dilemma for advocates of gun control.

No doubt an appeal to the Supreme Court carries risks. The court last ruled on gun rights in 1939 in United States v. Miller, which is seen by many as holding that groups, not persons, are covered by the Second Amendment. Since then, there has been growing support for the individual-rights interpretation -- even from liberal constitutional scholars who favor gun control. Adding to the dynamic is an administration that embraces gun rights and an increasingly conservative and closely divided Supreme Court. Instead of a ruling that applies only to the District of Columbia, an appeal could generate a decision affecting gun laws across the nation.

But Mr. Fenty has to think of what is best for his city, which has nothing to lose by going to the Supreme Court. If the District wins, the law stays on the books, and police will continue to have an important law enforcement tool. If the court refuses to hear the case or if it agrees that the gun ban is unconstitutional, the District still would be able to come up with a legislative solution. When it overturned the ban on handguns, the federal appeals panel said the District has a right to regulate firearms. It may come to that -- and city officials would do well to start formulating what restrictions they would seek. Doing so should not be seen as a concession, only insurance.

Critics of the District's gun law delight in pointing out that it hasn't stopped the killings or the violence. What they don't say, and what is not known, is how much worse the situation would be without this law.

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