Trigger for a Test of D.C. Gun laws?(COMMENTARY)

Article excerpt


No jurisdiction in the United States works as doggedly to disarm citizens as does the District of Columbia, our nation's capital and on-again, off-again murder capital. Sure, the city council grudgingly legalized pepper spray in 1993 (provided, of course, that it's properly registered). But that brief concession to self-defense hasn't led to any revision of the District's gun laws, which are still among the most restrictive in America.

All that may be about to change.

The Washington Post reported May 30 that D.C.'s federal public defender has filed motions challenging the District's handgun ban, on behalf of two defendants charged with violating the ban. The motions apparently cite the Justice Department's recent affirmation that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms unrelated to militia service. The DOJ expressed the individual rights view in footnotes to two briefs recently filed with the Supreme Court, both of which contain the phrase "the Second Amendment ... protects the rights of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms."

Are the District's gun laws consistent with that view? Not even close. The District bans the possession of unregistered handguns, and prohibits, with few exceptions, the registration of any handgun not validly registered in the District prior to 1976. The law survived a Second Amendment challenge in the 1987 D.C. Court of Appeals case Sandidge vs. United States. But that case stated baldly that "the right to keep and bear arms is not a right conferred upon the people by the federal constitution" - a statement that's rather hard to square with the Second Amendment, which speaks of the "right" of the "people" to "keep and bear arms."

The Sandidge court also held that the Second Amendment guarantees "a collective right [of the states] rather than an individual right" - the view that the Justice Department has supposedly rejected. …