Dick Heller, a 76-year-old special police officer whose Supreme Court case changed the District’s gun laws a decade ago, arrives on Capitol Hill in style.
Speaking to a women’s gun rights group last week, days ahead of the decision’s 10th anniversary Tuesday, he’s wearing a “Make America Free Again” baseball cap. It is pouring rain, but he’s riding a bike, protected by a poncho. He introduces himself as “Dude Heller,” shakes a few hands, gives a 10-minute speech in which he calls the District “a colony that has no use for the Constitution” and leaves before the event is over.
For him, this is what victory looks like.
“I didn’t ask for bazookas, tanks and flamethrowers,” he said. “I just asked for my gun.”
Heller was back at the Supreme Court for a rally Tuesday marking 10 years since what he called the “magnificent decision.” In the decade that has passed, nationwide debates about the Second Amendment have grown more heated, although officials say the Heller decision has probably had little effect on the city’s gun violence.
On Tuesday, realizing that a gun rights rally was unfolding steps away, protesters condemning the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decisions on abortion notices in pregnancy centers and President Trump’s travel ban migrated to the event meant to honor Heller.
They shouted slogans such as “Free D.C.” and “D.C. law for D.C. people” at Second Amendment supporters, occasionally drowning out a faulty sound system. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who was scheduled to speak, didn’t appear because of the “high security situation,” said Tyler Yzaguirre, president of the Second Amendment Institute and the event’s organizer.
Ann Elise Trafford, who joined in the chants, said she grew up blocks from Heller’s home on Capitol Hill. She didn’t understand why people from around the country were in the District to support him and a case she considers a local issue.
“We’ve had neighbors lost to gun violence,” she said. “I haven’t yet met a single person [at this rally] from D.C.”
Heller, standing at a lectern in a short-sleeve button-down shirt and sunglasses, didn’t shrink.
“We are supporters of the First Amendment,” he said. “We are on the same team.”
For gun rights advocates, Heller’s story never gets old. The former paratrooper and, as he put it, “I.T. jock” moved to Capitol Hill in 1976 and he lived near the troubled Kentucky Courts public housing complex. He wanted a gun to protect himself.
“Matt Dillon on ‘Gunsmoke’ was my favorite actor,” he said. “I said, ‘I need one of those.’ ”
But Heller’s desire ran afoul of D.C. gun laws. He was allowed to carry a handgun while working at the Federal Judicial Center, the judicial branch’s research and education agency, but he couldn’t register a weapon to keep at home. Only government workers benefited from his right to bear arms, he said.
“I was given a gun to protect them but couldn’t own a gun to protect me after I turned in my gun protecting them,” Heller said.
This set up a decades-long battle that ended in 2008 when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that people — not just those serving in militias — have a right to possess firearms. Lawyers on different sides of the issue said the decision provided the answer to a 200-year-old question.
“I think its most important contribution was to establish the right to bear arms as an individual right,” said Robert A. Levy, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute, who personally funded the litigation. “It shifts the burden of proof to the government if government proposed gun-
control regulations — and, by the way, I don’t think anyone denies reasonable regulations are appropriate.”
The case preceded a court decision last year striking down the District’s requirement that people seeking licenses to carry concealed weapons must demonstrate a “good reason.” The city decided not to appeal the case, Wrenn v. District of Columbia, to the high court, saying an unfavorable ruling would put similar concealed-carry restrictions nationwide in jeopardy.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said 1,200 people have sought city concealed-carry permits, including about 500 who don’t live in the District. He said he doesn’t think Heller affected crime rates in the city because those seeking permits through legal channels generally aren’t contributing to violence.
“I just don’t think people are by and large interested in carrying a firearm in the District of Columbia,” Newsham said. “The tough part for us is the people that want to carry them illegally.”
Adam Skaggs, chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that supports gun regulations, said the Heller decision wasn’t the victory the amendment’s enthusiasts make it out to be. Although Justice Antonin Scalia recognized gun ownership is an individual right, he also said that right was limited.
“As a practical matter, Heller did not have the consequence of sweeping most American gun laws into the dustbin of history,” Skaggs said. “Its political, rhetorical and psychological impact shouldn’t be underestimated. In terms of being a turning point in which gun regulation is no longer possible in America, that would dramatically be overstating [its effect].”
Heller, a self-described libertarian, seemed no less elated as he jetted from speaking engagement to speaking engagement last week while holding down his day job as a security officer at a private company. Changes in the gun debate, such as the national conversation that followed the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February, don’t have him doubting his stance.
“We used to take our guns to school,” he said. “Nobody had any issues like occurred today. The culture’s changed. . . . The guns don’t jump out of the holster and shoot people.”
Heller’s brief speech last week didn’t disappoint members of the DC Project, which works to bring 50 women — one from each state — to the District each year to meet their lawmakers and advocate for gun rights.
Amanda Suffecool, an Ohio radio host and rally coordinator with the group, said that when Heller shows up at a Second Amendment event, “there’s a line.”
“To me, Dick Heller has been a hero,” she said. “When you see one man take on the government because he was right, you have to admire him.”
Peter Hermann and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.