Nation Awaits D.C. Handgun Ruling; 32-Year-Old Ban before Supreme Court

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Nation Awaits D.C. Handgun Ruling; 32-Year-Old Ban before Supreme Court


Byline: Gary Emerling, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The District of Columbia's fight to preserve its nearly 32-year-old ban on handguns before the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn nationwide attention as a bellwether vote on the limits of gun control.

"Regardless of who wins and loses, the crucial thing is really going to be what [the justices] are going to say about the Second Amendment," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Combat Gun Violence. "It will set the ground rules for analyzing almost every gun law in the country for years to come."

Attorneys for the city and Dick Anthony Heller - a special police officer whose failed effort to register a handgun in 2002 helped spur the legal battle - will argue their cases before the justices on Tuesday.

Both sides in the case, along with city officials, federal lawmakers and the White House, say the court's decision places much at stake.

"It'll be an issue as important as abortion, gay marriage - these flash points that so divide us in the United States," said interim D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, who has led the city's efforts to keep its gun ban.

Widespread impact

The case will mark the first time in about 70 years that the Supreme Court has examined the Second Amendment, which states: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The rarity of the case and the potential consequences of the ruling account for the widespread attention it has received: Nearly 70 amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of more than 320 members of Congress, 36 states and other interested parties on both sides of the case.

The most notable U.S. city to submit a brief is Chicago, which, aside from the District, potentially has the most to lose or gain from a court decision.

In 1982, Chicago enacted a ban similar to the District's, forbidding handgun registration, with some exceptions.

"The Heller case is obviously of a greater interest to people locally, both within city government and to residents as well, as I think it is to people across the country," said Benna Ruth Solomon, Chicago's deputy corporation counsel, who steered the drafting of the city's brief to protect its ban.

Ms. Solomon said there are "several steps" before a decision in the District's case would affect Chicago's ban or the gun laws of other cities and states.

For example, the court would have to rule that the Second Amendment is "incorporated" by the 14th Amendment against the states - meaning the amendment applies to state and local governments and not just to federal lawmakers.

Such a ruling would go beyond the question the court intends to address, but the justices have authority to exceed those boundaries.

"Our brief was really extremely prophylactic in nature," Ms. Solomon said. "It is not because we are directly affected by the case. It is more because we don't wish to be directly affected by the case."

Alan Gura, an attorney for Mr. Heller who will argue before the Supreme Court, said a ruling in his favor could put gun prohibition "off the table."

"Basically, gun laws that make sense, gun laws that are designed to help police solve crime ... are not going to be affected," said Mr Gura, who will argue against the District's lead counsel in the case, former acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter E. Dellinger III.

Others who have weighed in on the case include county prosecutors worried that the court's decision could result in appeals from convicted criminals.

A brief filed by district attorneys from San Francisco, New York and elsewhere states that "Second Amendment challenges to criminal laws already have begun."

"A felon convicted of criminal firearm possession recently challenged a New York gun possession statute based on the D. …

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