Gun Ban Ruling Puts Fenty on the Spot

A gun buyback at the 7th Police District station last year was one of the steps taken by the city to control guns.
A gun buyback at the 7th Police District station last year was one of the steps taken by the city to control guns. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty must make a risky choice about the District's gun ban: defend it before the Supreme Court or write new, looser laws governing how city residents can keep guns in their homes.

As he wades into a high-stakes debate over the Second Amendment, the new mayor of the nation's capital faces the possibility that the city could lose the case and undercut decades of hard-fought gun-control legislation across the country.

Gun-control advocates are quietly acknowledging that Fenty (D) is in a difficult spot. Across the country, many of them and their attorneys have been meeting in conference rooms to analyze the potential damage that could be done nationwide if the D.C. law falls apart. Some fear that an adverse Supreme Court ruling could lead to more gun lobby challenges and the collapse of tough gun regulations in New York, Chicago and Detroit. Other potential casualties include federal laws that require background checks for gun buyers or ban the manufacture of machine guns for civilian use.

"Making the right choice is going to be a very difficult decision," said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the D.C. based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "Despite all the rhetoric about 'We're taking this all the way to the Supreme Court,' you have to really think this one through. Everyone is cognizant of the fact that this is probably the high-water mark for Second Amendment cases."

Fenty and the gun-control community have faced this dilemma since March 9, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the D.C. law as unconstitutional. The decades-old law bars all handguns unless they were registered before 1976. The appeals court keyed on a section of the law that bars people from keeping handguns in homes but did not address provisions barring them from carrying guns outside their residences.

In the appeals court's view, the D.C. law is much too sweeping.

At issue is how to interpret the Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The ruling marked the first time that a federal appeals court had struck down a gun regulation on the grounds that the amendment protects an individual's rights to bear arms. Other courts have found that it specifically protects the ability of states to maintain a militia.

Last week, the full D.C. Circuit refused to reconsider the city's arguments -- leaving the Supreme Court as the only place for the District to appeal.

Legal experts say gun-rights activists have a lot of advantages at this time in history and in this specific suit, Parker v. District of Columbia, filed in 2003 by six D.C. residents who said they wanted the right to own guns.

First, the District law is considered one of the most restrictive in the country, gun law experts say, and one of the more difficult to defend because of some seemingly illogical requirements. For example, one part of the law requires owners of registered guns, including shotguns, to disassemble them or use trigger locks -- basically rendering them useless in an emergency. The appellate panel singled out that provision as flawed.

Next, the belief that the Second Amendment protects individual gun rights has been gaining currency among conservative and liberal legal scholars.

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