Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard who sued the District of Columbia after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his Capitol Hill home, spoke outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2008 after it struck down the city's handgun ban.
“I think that people have the right to defend themselves in their home but also on the street.— Tom Palmer
On June 25, 2008 owning a handgun in D.C. was illegal, much as it had been since 1976.
A day later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the city’s three-decade-old ban on handguns was unconstitutional, opening the door for residents to arm themselves while in their homes.
Five years after that ruling, though, some residents are waging a new fight—not only do they want to keep arms, but they want to bear them too.
The Heller Ruling
The case that became the 2008 Heller ruling took shape in 2002, when Cato Institute scholar Robert Levy started vetting plaintiffs for a challenge to the city's longstanding handgun ban. He chose six D.C. residents, led by Dick Heller, a Capitol Hill resident and security guard that had been denied a permit to carry his gun from work to his home.
A lawsuit was filed in 2003, but it wasn't until 2008 that it reached the Supreme Court, where on March 18 both sides presented their arguments. Three months later, the court's ruling came down.
“The District’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of ‘arms’ that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the court.
“Under any of the standards of scrutiny the Court has applied to enumerated constitutional rights, this prohibition—in the place where the importance of the lawful defense of self, family, and property is most acute—would fail constitutional muster.”
And so the city’s ban failed, falling to a 5-4 majority.
The Right To Keep Arms
In the wake of the Heller ruling, the D.C. Council enacted new regulations to allow residents to purchase and register handguns, though not many have chosen to do so. The rules were strict, mandating that residents take a five-hour training class, pass a vision test, and pay hundreds of dollars in fees. The rules also limited what type of guns residents could own, and how many they could purchase per month.
For legislators and gun control advocates, the new rules comported with what the court held: handgun ownership had to be allowed, but it could be regulated.
“D.C. has probably one of the most sophisticated, important and effective gun laws in the country,” says Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“We have been able to keep reducing gun violence in the District of Columbia, keep illegal guns off the streets and comply with the Heller decision.”
In 2010, a federal judge in Washington agreed, rejecting a lawsuit arguing that the city’s registration rules and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines violated the spirit of the Heller ruling.
Hopeful gun owners, though, have continued to criticize the registration procedures as overly cumbersome—and have pushed to have them amended.
“I spent four months getting a gun, it cost $435 and I can’t take it out of the home,” says Emily Miller, a senior editor with The Washington Times who turned her D.C. gun-buying experience into a long-running series on the city’s gun registration rules. (The series is being adapted for her first book, “Emily Gets Her Gun… But Obama Wants To Take Yours.”)
In response to concerns expressed by Miller and others, in 2012 the Council loosened registration requirements, replacing the training course with a safety video and dropping the vision and ballistics tests. It also acted to solve a more pressing problem: how residents could actually go about buying a gun.
Since no gun stores exist in D.C.—they are limited to commercial areas that are 300 feet from homes, schools, churches, and playgrounds—any hopeful gun owner has to rely on a federally licensed firearms transfer agent to accept a gun from out of state.
In 2011, the city’s sole agent, Charles Sykes, went out of business, leaving residents no options to get guns. City officials scrambled to find him a new place to conduct transfers, and in July of that year announced that they had settled on a small office in the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department.
The next year, the Council also gave the mayor the authority to act as the firearms transfer agent of last resort in case Sykes were to close up shop again.
According to the Metropolitan Police Department, from 2009 through early 2013, just over 2,200 handguns have been registered in D.C., along with 1,150 rifles. (If handguns registered before 1976 and those registered by security companies and off-duty police are included in the total tally, there are over 56,000 registered handguns in D.C.)
The Right To Bear Arms
Tom Palmer is one of the six original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the Heller ruling, but the 2008 victory didn’t mark the end of his fight. After the Council instituted the registration requirement, Palmer tried to register his handgun—for use outside of his home.
His request was rejected, and only a year after Heller was decided, Palmer joined three other D.C. residents in filing a lawsuit in order to carry their handguns outside their homes.
“I think that people have the right to defend themselves in their home but also on the street,” says Palmer, who says that he has been assaulted on the street while in D.C.
Another of the Heller plaintiffs, Gillian St. Lawrence, agrees.
"In D.C., no matter what neighborhood you're in, you could be walking around in broad daylight and there will be someone who jumps out of a car, and they'll be holding onto an illegal handgun. But then the law-abiding, tax-paying citizen like myself can't defend themselves," she says.
This point is central to the lawsuit: while D.C. police regularly recover thousands of illegal guns each year—in 2012, they claimed 2,008 guns—regular residents aren't allowed to carry their own legally registered handguns beyond the boundaries of their home.
City officials have pushed back on any attempt to legalize carrying guns outside the home, saying that saying there are too many targets or national and international significance in D.C. to run the risk.
"In addition to assisting the Secret Service with daily movements of the president and vice president around the city, and protecting foreign dignitaries, [the Metropolitan Police Department] also provides security support for more than 4,000 special events annually," argued former D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles in his brief seeking the suit’s dismissal.
"Imagine how difficult it will be for law enforcement to safeguard the public, not to mention the new president at the inaugural parade, if carrying semi-automatic rifles were to suddenly become legal in Washington."
Horowitz, of the Coalition to End Gun Violence, thinks that Palmer’s suit goes beyond what the Heller ruling allows.
“The chances of them getting that in D.C. are pretty limited,” he says. “The Supreme Court in Heller never touched that, they said the right, in fact, is a right of hearth and home. And so you’re going well beyond the Heller decision by trying to try to now assert a right to carry.”
But given that other similar bans to the right to carry have been struck down—in late 2012, a federal court struck down a ban on concealed carry permits in Illinois—Horowitz concedes that the case may result in another Heller-like legal showdown.
“It will be an interesting decision," he says of Palmer's lawsuit. "I’m sure it will eventually go to the Supreme Court."
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