By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Relishing a moment of triumph after a successful, long-running legal battle to end the District's handgun ban, Dick A. Heller strode into D.C. police headquarters yesterday with an unloaded revolver and began registering the weapon so he can keep it in his Capitol Hill home for self-defense.
"It's a great day," declared Heller, 66, a hero to gun rights advocates nationwide for his role in District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case decided in his favor last month. Wearing a dark blue necktie adorned with the scales of justice, Heller, a security guard, climbed the steps of the police building on Indiana Avenue NW about 9:15 a.m. with his .22-caliber revolver in a bright red satchel.
"Only in America," he said, smiling.
Moments later, at a reception desk set up in the lobby for gun-registration applicants, Heller unzipped the bag for four police officers at the counter and gingerly handed one of them the weapon: a nine-shot Harrington & Richardson "Longhorn" model with a six-inch barrel, designed in the style of an Old West sidearm.
Heller said he owned the revolver "way before the ban was implemented" 32 years ago. Although the 1976 law barred new handgun registrations, residents who owned revolvers before the ban were allowed to keep them in their homes, unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks. They could not be used legally even for self-defense.
Back then, rather than participate in what he considered an unconstitutional process, Heller said, he gave the pistol to a friend in Maryland for safekeeping. So yesterday was a homecoming for the old firearm after more than three decades in storage.
"It's one of my favorites," he said of the blue-steel revolver. "It's like the kind Matt Dillon used to use on 'Gunsmoke.' "
Heller was one of six plaintiffs who sued the District in 2006, saying the city's gun control laws violated the Second Amendment. In a 5 to 4 ruling June 26, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution grants individuals the right to own guns for self-defense. Although the majority opinion said that officials may impose reasonable restrictions, it meant the end of the District's handgun ban.
Five of the plaintiffs were dropped from the case for lack of legal standing, leaving Heller as the only named litigant championing gun rights. To libertarians and firearms enthusiasts, he has become an icon, his victory celebrated on T-shirts and bumper stickers.
"My first reaction is we shouldn't have had to be here in the first place," he said when he had finished the registration-application process and the revolver was back in the satchel by his side. But "it's a great feeling to be returning to a state of normalcy when it comes to being able to defend your life in your household."
Yet even as the court ruling forces a shift in policy regarding firearms ownership in the nation's capital, several legal and regulatory obstacles remain for D.C. residents hoping to purchase handguns and keep them loaded.
With few exceptions, it is not yet possible for a Washingtonian to legally obtain a handgun because there are no licensed dealers in the city (although officials expect there will be eventually). Federal law bars a dealer in one state from selling a pistol to a resident of another state unless the gun is shipped to a dealer in the buyer's home jurisdiction, where the purchaser can take delivery.
As a result, although dozens of people have picked up registration-application packets, police said, only five residents, including Heller, have begun the registration process since the city began accepting applications Thursday.
The process is open to gun owners who stored their firearms outside the city while the ban was in effect and to residents who illegally kept revolvers in their homes during the ban and want to register them under an amnesty program.
Of the five applicants so far, police said, only Heller brought in a legal gun from outside the District. The others sought to register revolvers under the amnesty program. Three of those applications are pending. The other was rejected and the gun was confiscated because the applicant had a criminal record, police said.
"It's going to take a while" before the city has a legally well-armed populace, said Dane von Breichenruchardt, president of the Bill of Rights Foundation, a public policy group, as he stood with Heller at police headquarters.
In a statement yesterday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) urged city residents not to follow Heller's lead. "Don't buy into the gun culture in our streets by bringing it into our homes with the gun you buy," she said.
Those who eventually opt to arm themselves in the District will face tough restrictions.
For example, the city continues to ban most magazine-loaded semiautomatic pistols, the most popular kind of handgun on the market and commonly carried by police officers. Registrations are limited almost entirely to revolvers, which must be kept unloaded and disabled unless the owner is in reasonable fear of being imminently harmed at home by an attacker.
Arguing that the restrictions violate the court ruling, Heller and others predict more litigation if the city does not ease the regulations. In the meantime, another of Heller's handguns -- a Colt M1911 .45-caliber semiautomatic, the U.S. military's standard-issue sidearm for most of the 20th century -- remains in Maryland.
For now, he is happy that his .22-caliber Longhorn is back home, although he is barred from using it, even in self-defense, while his registration application is pending.
"We've begun the process of helping the District recognize our constitutional rights," he said outside the police building, after he had been fingerprinted, filled out paperwork and passed a firearms-proficiency test. After a background check, police will notify him whether his registration has been approved.
"It's been a long battle."