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Law students Hayley Tozeski, left, and Jacqueline Ambrose wait yesterday for admission to today's D.C. gun hearing.
Law students Hayley Tozeski, left, and Jacqueline Ambrose wait yesterday for admission to today's D.C. gun hearing. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Outside the Supreme Court building yesterday, awaiting arguments this morning in a potentially landmark gun-rights case, the court of public opinion was already in session, the citizen-justices presiding in portable lawn chairs, robed against the chill in heavy blankets and winter coats.

Does the Second Amendment guarantee individuals the right to own guns? Or does it confer only a collective right that allows states to form armed militias? By last night, more than 60 people from across the country filled the entire block of First Street NE, some camped out since Sunday, eager for seats in the court when attorneys debate the issue, beginning at 10 a.m.

Although the real court won't issue a decision for months, a majority of the sidewalk justices apparently came with their minds made up, ruling that the District's 32-year-old ban on handgun ownership, the focus of the case, violates the Constitution.

"It's clear what the Second Amendment means to me," said Jason McCrory, 23, a gun owner and recent college graduate from Lancaster, Pa. "It's intended to give people the right to defend themselves and their fellow citizens if someone attacks them."

McCrory arrived Sunday night with a friend, Dan Mott, 21, and after sleeping heavily bundled in canvas chairs, the two will be the first to enter when the building's giant bronze doors swing open to the public. As McCrory spoke, Mott stood next to him, reading the 78-page petitioner's brief filed by the city, which has asked the high court to overturn a lower appellate ruling that declared the handgun ban unconstitutional.

Mott already had digested the 82-page respondent's brief, which requests a ruling that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to arm themselves.

"I don't think the petitioner's argument is very solid here," said Mott, an electrician who quit college after a semester. Glancing up from Page 48, he said: "I think the respondent's brief is just rock-solid compared to this. I mean, reading this, I think the other one makes a lot more sense."

Kathy Arberg, a court spokeswoman, said that public seating arrangements for the arguments were in flux yesterday but that officials anticipated offering at least 70 to 80 seats to the people in line for the full 75-minute proceeding. Other spectators will have to take turns in at least 15 to 20 seats that probably will be available for three- to five-minute intervals.

"For those of us who are gun enthusiasts, this is the biggest thing to happen since before we were born," said Robert Blackmer, 38, an investigator for the Arizona Department of Corrections. He said the trip from Phoenix cost him about $1,000.

Many in line were law students and recent law graduates fascinated by the constitutional issues and willing to sleep in the cold for a chance to see legal history in the making. Others in line are gun owners who came to give moral support to attorneys fighting the ban and who hope to see their interpretation of the Second Amendment vindicated.

"I agree with the city's position," said LaToya Edwards, 23, a Duke University law student, as she unpacked her lawn chair after a four-hour drive from Durham, N.C. "I've always felt that the right to own a gun has been a collective and not an individual right."

Pat Harvey, a 24-year-old second-year law student at George Washington University, was another in the minority. "If a democratically elected city council has had a law on the books for 30 years, it's not the court's job to overturn it."

On and on went the debate, the people sipping coffee and munching crackers, studying law books and puffing cigarettes. Among those in the crowd were seven students from the Oak Brook College of Law in Fresno, Calif., all of them siding against the District.

Matthew Carmel, 51, a gun-rights supporter from New Jersey, felt so compelled to come that he caught a train at 3:36 a.m. "I really just feel like if I don't get involved, our Second Amendment rights will be lost," he said.

At one point yesterday along the sidewalk came Rick Hohensee, 54, homeless and bearded. He wore a winter hat, two coats and white socks peeking from his open-toed shoes. He carried a cardboard sign that read, "D.C. EXISTS SO THAT THE SECOND AMENDMENT DOES NOT APPLY HERE." He unwrinkled a typed manifesto from a breast pocket, outlining his views on gun control and proceeded with a long argument that was difficult to follow.

"It's very, very important," Hohensee said of the gun case. "It's important to everyone."

Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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