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Plaintiff in handgun case is suing D.C. for right carry firearms in public

Tom G. Palmer, one of four plaintiffs in a suit against the District for the right to carry firearms in public, says carrying a gun saved his life in 1982.
Tom G. Palmer, one of four plaintiffs in a suit against the District for the right to carry firearms in public, says carrying a gun saved his life in 1982. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

He was at the heart of the landmark Supreme Court case that took down the District's handgun ban. But before arriving at the range, he warns in a text message: "You will find I'm not the best shot."

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Once he fires a few rounds, however, it's clear that Tom G. Palmer is no novice, either. He lands a couple right in the torso of his human-shaped target. Then he aims at the target's head, misses once by a few inches, then hits twice.

But what good is such a skill, Palmer asks, if you're not free to protect yourself on the streets of your own city?

As one of the plaintiffs who sued the District for the right to keep handguns in the home, Palmer has one notch on his belt. Now he's suing the city again, this time for the right to carry firearms in public.

Palmer, a 53-year-old fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, says he thinks he has the Constitution on his side.

The Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to "keep and bear arms," and "bear," he says, "means to carry." On the street in his Kalorama neighborhood. To the grocery store, the mall, the movies. But not everywhere: "There are all kinds of reasonable restrictions that can be established," he says. "But a blanket ban on carrying them does not seem to sit well with the Constitution itself."

In such a controversial case, there's the legalese and the parsing of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' intent. Then there's the court of public opinion. The Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash., nonprofit agency that is paying for the challenge, knows this. So does its attorney, Alan Gura, who became the star of the gun rights movement when he won the case overturning the D.C. handgun ban in 2008.

So they went about choosing the plaintiffs for the next D.C. gun case carefully. Black, white, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, libertarian -- together they represent what Gura calls "everyday Americans," "a diverse group of good people from all corners of our society."

So the group that could make it legal to carry a loaded firearm through the streets of the nation's capital includes a self-employed tax accountant from American University Park, a communications lawyer from Adams Morgan, and a law student who lives in Nashville and was arrested for driving through the District with a gun in his car.

And then there's Palmer, who says carrying a gun saved his life.

* * *

It was 1982, dusk on a summer night near San Jose, when a band of thugs yelled homophobic slurs at Palmer and a colleague.


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