RICHMOND -- A federal judge's decision upholding a ban on guns in the city's public housing projects sets a precedent that can be followed nationwide, Richmond's housing authority director said this week.
The ruling Monday by U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams marked the first time a court has decided that public housing residents can be barred from having guns, said Richard Gentry, executive director of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
Gentry said guns also are banned in public housing projects in Chicago, but the law there has not been challenged in court.
"This is a unique court case," he said. "Now this can be used as a precedent throughout the country."
Williams said the ban was "part of a good faith effort to improve the safety and quality of life in public housing."
Richmond, which has one of the highest murder rates in the country, has been plagued by drug-related shootings and other violence at its 4,500 public housing units.
In its lawsuit challenging the gun ban and other provisions of a new lease, the Richmond Tenants Organization said the requirements made the city's 14,000 public housing residents second-class citizens.
Williams issued an injunction that kept the lease from going into effect last month but after hearing testimony last week upheld all but a few of the lease provisions.
"The widespread presence of drugs and guns have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation which now permeates the public housing developments," he wrote. "There is substantial evidence that eliminating guns will reduce crime in the developments and reduce accidental death. Despite conflicting expert testimony, this court finds that a prohibition on firearms from public housing is a reasonable lease term."
He permitted specific bans on firearms, blackjacks, explosive devices and nunchucks, a martial arts weapon. He struck a line banning "weapons of any type" because that could mean kitchen knives or anything else used to hurt someone.
He also struck a provision that would have caused tenants to lose their lease if they committed misdemeanor drug or alcohol violations away from the public housing area. He upheld a ban on illegal drugs in the housing complexes, a provision already in force in many other public housing leases around the country.
Alma Barlow, president of the tenants organization, said she was disappointed with the ruling but had not decided whether to appeal. Lawyers for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, which represented the tenants, declined to comment.
Paul Blackman, a National Rifle Association official who was an expert witness for the tenants, said the ruling could lead to a tenant being evicted for shooting an intruder in self-defense.
Gentry said tenants will be given civil court hearings before they are evicted for violating the lease.
"It has never been our intent nor will it ever be to conduct raids on residents or to hassle our residents," he said. "When we become aware of a problem, we will be able to take action."