Fighting for Our Handgun Ban

A Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
A Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
By Adrian M. Fenty and Linda Singer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

As mayor and attorney general of the District of Columbia, we were deeply disappointed this year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declared that the District's longstanding handgun ban violates the Second Amendment. Today we are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision in that case, which we think threatens public safety and is wrong on the law.

The central meaning of the Second Amendment has long been settled in the courts. The last time the Supreme Court directly addressed the provision -- which reads, "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" -- was in 1939, in a case called United States v. Miller. The court said that the Second Amendment's "obvious purpose" is to ensure the effectiveness and continuation of state military forces (the militia mentioned in the amendment), not to provide a private right to own weapons for one's own purposes.

For decades, the lower courts followed that pronouncement. They repeatedly rejected claims that the Second Amendment provides a defense against laws regulating gun possession and use that have no connection with service in a state militia. Although gun proponents vigorously insisted that the Second Amendment protects their right to possess and use guns for private purposes, the courts recognized that their view lacks support in its language and history.

On a related note, the courts also repeatedly recognized that the Second Amendment is meant to constrain the federal government alone. Another longstanding Supreme Court precedent, Presser v. Illinois, establishes that the Second Amendment simply does not apply to state regulation of gun possession and use. The District should have authority just like that of the states, if for no other reason than to avoid the absurd result that the nation's capital alone would lack the ability to take the steps the local government believes are needed to keep its residents safe.

Against this backdrop, the D.C. Council decided in 1976 to ban almost all private possession of handguns, while allowing residents to possess properly registered rifles and shotguns. The council's reasoning was as right then as it is now. Because handguns are involved in crimes, accidents and suicides far more often than other firearms, it makes perfect sense to ask that residents who want firearms at home choose something other than handguns. Although only a third of the nation's firearms are handguns, these easily concealable weapons are used in far more killings, woundings and crimes than all other types of firearms combined. The more handguns a jurisdiction has, the more people die in homicides. Although handguns might still be trafficked into the District illegally from other jurisdictions, the last thing the District needs is even more handguns.

The handgun ban has saved countless lives, but this fundamental part of the District's public safety laws will be no more if the Supreme Court does not review and overturn this year's decision by the D.C. Circuit. Departing from the consensus of the courts, the court (in a 2 to 1 vote) decided that the Second Amendment is not about state militias after all but about personal gun rights. We think that ruling is extraordinary and wrong. Indeed, it is the first time a federal appellate court has used such a view of the Second Amendment to strike down any gun-control law.

The next step in the court's analysis was also extraordinary and wrong. On the basis of Supreme Court precedent, even this court agreed that the Second Amendment, however one reads it, is not infringed on by "reasonable restrictions" on gun possession and use. The court ruled, though, that banning any "type" of weapon is never reasonable. The idea that the Constitution forbids a government to ban any type of weapon regardless of the reasons is unsupportable. It is plainly relevant that the District allows residents to possess other perfectly effective firearms, especially given how much more death and misery handguns have caused than those other firearms.

We hope the Supreme Court takes the case and upholds the District's law, though we know that the outcome of any Supreme Court case is uncertain. We do not doubt that the District residents who are plaintiffs in the case brought this suit in good faith. But the District's government must choose what is in the best interest of the District overall. The council long ago made its considered choice on how best to save lives here. We believe that choice was the right one and one the council had every right to make under the Constitution. So we will fight.

Adrian M. Fenty is mayor of the District of Columbia. Linda Singer is the District's attorney general.

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