By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; B01
Even for a lawyer with decades of experience and a résumé of eminent achievements, an opportunity to help shape constitutional history might never come along.
Then there's Alan Gura, 37, Class of '95 at Georgetown University Law Center. For him, the chance has just arrived.
When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in District of Columbia v. Heller, a case that could lead to a landmark ruling on the Second Amendment, Gura will address the justices for the first time in his career.
He'll ask them to uphold a lower appellate ruling that struck down the District's handgun ban, one of the nation's toughest gun control laws, which was passed in 1976. He'll urge them to interpret the Constitution as guaranteeing people the right to own firearms.
To merely call this the biggest case of Gura's relatively short professional life -- well, that wouldn't do it justice. Constitutional scholars everywhere are watching. To oppose him, the city has hired a 66-year-old legal titan who was winning arguments in the Supreme Court when Gura was still studying for the bar exam.
Must be nerve-racking.
"Not really," Gura said. "It's certainly very exciting to be able to argue not just in front of the Supreme Court, but to argue this case in particular. But at the end of the day, it's an appellate argument, and I've done a lot of those.
"It's the practice of law," he said simply. "And I've been practicing law for a while now."
Gura, a civil litigation specialist in the two-lawyer firm of Gura & Possessky, was hired to handle the legal fight in 2003 by a social acquaintance, Robert A. Levy, the wealthy retired entrepreneur turned libertarian scholar who is bankrolling the case.
Levy, a nonpracticing lawyer, and Clark M. Neily III, a libertarian public-interest lawyer who deals mainly with property rights, had laid the groundwork for the litigation by recruiting a diverse group of plaintiffs: six D.C. residents, all strangers to each other, who want to own pistols.
But Levy and Neily needed a lawyer to represent the residents in a lawsuit against the city.
"Bob just called me on the phone one day," said Gura, a Los Angeles native who studied government at Cornell University before enrolling at Georgetown. "Bob is not a litigator, and Clark has a job doing something else, so they needed someone to take the reins.
"And I just said: 'Sure! Sounds like a great idea!' "
Five years later, with the case having gained potentially historic significance, Levy said he has resisted pressure from gun-rights advocates and others who wanted him to replace Gura with a more seasoned lawyer.
"There were a lot of people who said, 'There are a lot of superstars who could do this case -- and Alan Gura's not -- and wouldn't you be better served by hiring someone else?' " Levy said. "But Alan Gura knows this case better than anybody in the world."
Like Levy, Gura is a libertarian who contends that the government interferes too much with constitutional freedoms. Unlike Levy, who said he has never owned a firearm and doesn't want one, Gura said he keeps a handgun in his Virginia home to protect himself, his wife and their baby son.
Although he said he believes passionately in his side's interpretation of the Second Amendment, Gura argues calmly, explaining his case with soft-spoken precision, when supporters of the handgun law pointedly challenge him. In his view, although it is permissible for the government to regulate firearms ownership, the Constitution forbids an outright ban.
The lawsuit, which Levy said Gura is handling for "something less than minimum wage," failed in U.S. District Court. But the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the decision last year and declared the ban unconstitutional. The D.C. government has asked the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling.
Only Dick A. Heller, 66, a security guard who lives on Capitol Hill, remains a plaintiff. The circuit court ruled that the others did not have legal standing to sue the District over the ban.
Gura said he is ready to square off today against the heavyweight hired by the city, Walter E. Dellinger, a former acting U.S. solicitor general who has argued 20 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 13, with two yet to be decided.
"There's been a lot of preparation," said Gura, who, like Dellinger, has rehearsed his argument before a mock panel of justices. "I've mooted this case aggressively. I've had five moot courts with excellent practitioners, top people, asking me tough questions. There's no substitute for that. You learn a lot about your case."
After graduating from Georgetown and working as a law clerk for a U.S. District Court judge in North Carolina, Gura was a deputy state attorney general in California for three years, handling civil litigation. He said he was often assigned to defend police officers who had been sued for allegedly violating suspects' civil rights.
Returning to Washington in the late 1990s, he spent about a year with a big firm, Sidley Austin, and a year as counsel to the Senate subcommittee on criminal justice oversight before starting his firm. He and his partner, Laura Possessky, have offices on K Street downtown and in Alexandria.
"I sure appreciate the confidence Bob has shown in me," said Gura, who is aware that some people have urged Levy hire a more accomplished appellate lawyer with a bigger name. Among the suggested replacements, Levy said, were former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and former U.S. solicitor general Theodore B. Olson.
"I've had this case for five years," Gura said. "I won the case in the circuit court. I've written the pleadings. I've made the arguments before. I've devised the strategy. To take nothing away from those other lawyers -- because they're very fine lawyers -- but so what?
"It's not their case."
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.