D.C. Case Could Shape Gun Laws

D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer and Mayor Adrian Fenty, backed by police officers, announce the city's request that the Supreme Court allow its gun ban. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Robert Barnes and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The District asked the Supreme Court yesterday to save the city's ban on handgun ownership, saying an appeals court's decision overturning the prohibition "drastically departs from the mainstream of American jurisprudence."

If the court agrees to take the case, as most legal experts believe is likely, it could lead to a historic decision sometime next year on whether the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual's right to own a gun or simply imparts a collective, civic right related to maintaining state militias.

It is a question that has been hotly debated in the nation's courts and legislatures for years, and a decision by the Supreme Court to settle the issue could carry broad implications for local governments and thrust gun control as an issue into the 2008 elections.

The District argues in its petition that its law -- one of the strictest in the nation -- should be upheld regardless of whether the court sides with the individualist or collective legal theory.

"It is eminently reasonable to permit private ownership of other types of weapons, including shotguns and rifles, but ban the easily concealed and uniquely dangerous modern handgun," states the petition, filed by D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer. It adds: "Whatever right the Second Amendment guarantees, it does not require the District to stand by while its citizens die."

Most petitions for review focus on why the court should take the case, but the District's filing serves as more of a preview of its defense of the law, filled with statistics about gun violence and the harm caused to children, women and police officers.

"No other provision of the Bill of Rights even arguably requires a government to tolerate serious physical harm on anything like the scale of the devastation worked by handguns," the petition states.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at a news conference outside D.C. police headquarters that the law has strong support among District residents. "The only possible outcome of more handguns in the home is more violence," he said. "Our appeal will help the District of Columbia be able to continue to reduce gun violence."

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2 to 1 in March to throw out the District's law, which prohibits handgun ownership except by active and retired law enforcement officers. It also struck down a law requiring that rifles and shotguns kept in private homes be unloaded and disassembled or bound by trigger locks.

The court ruled that the Second Amendment "protects an individual right to keep and bear arms" and that "once it is determined -- as we have done -- that handguns are 'Arms' referred to in the Second Amendment, it is not open to the District to ban them."

The court acknowledged that its decision was groundbreaking; only one other federal appeals court -- that of the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans -- has recognized an individual's right to gun ownership, and it nevertheless upheld the federal gun-control law at issue. Nine other circuits around the country have endorsed the collective right.

That split is what makes it likely that the justices will accept the case. The lawyers who brought the case on behalf of six D.C. residents who wanted to overturn the ban also want the court to take the case.

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