City ponders ‘Plan B’ if justices void gun ban

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D.C. officials said yesterday a decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the District’s 32-year-old ban on handguns would force them to revamp the city’s stringent gun-control statutes.

“There’s just this really anxiety-producing proposition on what would we have if we relaxed these laws,” said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat. “We’d have to evaluate the court’s decision, then look at what revisions in our own statutes would allow us to have the maximum restrictions on guns in the District.”

The nine Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments today on whether parts of the gun laws — including those preventing most residents from legally keeping handguns in the city and requiring other firearms to be stored bound and disassembled — are permissible under the Constitution.

The case will focus on whether the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own firearms or only permits their possession by persons associated with a state-regulated militia.

D.C. officials are confident they can prevail before the court, but are bracing for a potential decision not in their favor, which would result in a rewrite of city code.

“At one point, you’re just completely focused on winning the case, and on the second point the ‘Plan B’ is quite obvious,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat who along with Mr. Gray will attend the hearing. “Any time you lose any type of ruling on any piece of legislation, you have to make the legislation adapt to whatever the ruling is.”

Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles — who has led the city’s recent efforts to keep the ban intact — said last week that future legislation would depend on how the justices deal with the case and the breadth of their ruling, which is expected by June.

Because the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal constitutional matters, the slightest word and smallest phrase could prove crucial to current and future gun legislation.

“We’d sit down with the mayor and the City Council and say, ‘OK, here’s what the court has decided; here’s what we think would pass muster with the court,’ ” Mr. Nickles said. “Because anything we do that is not supported by the decision of the court, we’re going to get sued again.”

Significant gun laws in the D.C. Code date back to the 1930s, and most of them are not expected to be considered directly by the high court.

For example, machine guns and sawed-off shotguns are illegal in the city; drug addicts and convicted felons are barred from buying or possessing guns; and it is against the law for unlicensed gun owners to possess ammunition.

However, if the court rules the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments and not to federal lawmakers alone — and that gun ownership is an individual right — such restraints in the District and elsewhere could come into question.

That possibility has drawn concern from jurisdictions across the country, with many saying a broad ruling by the court would endanger their gun-control efforts as well. U.S. Solicitor General Paul G. Clement filed an amicus brief in the case, saying an earlier appellate decision on the D.C. ban places federal gun laws at risk.

David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school, said the court may “try to find the narrowest grounds for its ruling that it possibly can.”

“I think the court will do whatever it can to avoid resolving the incorporation question, which is what impact if any would a ruling regarding the District of Columbia” have elsewhere, Mr. Vladeck said. “That’s the lurking $64,000 question.”

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