Justices To Rule On D.C. Gun Ban

Outside the Supreme Court, from left, are plaintiffs Dick Heller and Gillian St. Lawrence and lawyers Clark M. Neily III and Alan Gura.
Outside the Supreme Court, from left, are plaintiffs Dick Heller and Gillian St. Lawrence and lawyers Clark M. Neily III and Alan Gura. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will determine whether the District of Columbia's strict firearms law violates the Constitution, a decision that will raise the politically and culturally divisive issue of gun control just in time for the 2008 elections.

The court's examination of the meaning of the Second Amendment for the first time in nearly 70 years carries broad implications for gun-control measures locally and across the country.

The District has the nation's most restrictive law, essentially banning private handgun ownership and requiring that rifles and shotguns kept in private homes be unloaded and disassembled or outfitted with a trigger lock. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared it unconstitutional last year, becoming the first appeals court to overturn a gun-control law because of the Second Amendment.

For years, legal scholars, historians and grammarians have debated the meaning of the amendment because of its enigmatic wording and odd punctuation: "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."

Gun-rights proponents say the words guarantee the right of an individual to possess firearms. Gun-control supporters say the words convey only a civic or "collective" right to own guns as part of service in an organized military organization. The Bush administration said in 2002 that it supports the individual-rights position.

Robert A. Levy, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute who has spent years planning a challenge that would reach the Supreme Court, called the court's decision to take the case "good news for all Americans who would like to be able to defend themselves where they live and sleep."

"And it's especially good news for residents of Washington, D.C., which has been the murder capital of the nation despite an outright ban on all functional firearms since 1976," he said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said the District's up-and-down homicide rate would have been higher without the ban, and that the law is a locally supported move to protect police officers, children and other victims of gun violence.

"It's the will of the people of the District of Columbia that has to be respected," Fenty said at a news conference with D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer and several D.C. Council members. "We should have the right to make our own decisions."

He added: "We believe the U.S. Constitution is on our side."

The two sides proposed competing constitutional questions, so the court wrote its own, saying it would determine whether provisions of the District's law "violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes." The court will probably hear the case in March.

The court's last examination of the amendment was in 1939, when it ruled in U.S. v. Miller that a sawed-off shotgun transported across state lines by a bootlegger was not what the amendment's authors had in mind when they were protecting arms needed for military service.

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