Sunday, July 27, 2008

Richard Anthony Heller was the right man at the right time to challenge the District’s 32-year-old ban on handguns in the Supreme Court, his attorneys say.

The face behind the landmark case, they said, could not be a tobacco-spitting or camouflage-wearing caricature of a gun-rights advocate ripe to be picked apart by the press.

In the 66-year-old Heller, they found an everyman with a spotless background and genuine interest in protecting his constitutional right to bear arms.

Mr. Heller’s lawyers said he had the perfect combination of character traits to be the “regular citizen” in such a monumental case.

“You don’t have to be a ‘gun nut’ to petition for your rights,” said Clark Neely, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who worked on the District of Columbia v. Heller case. “It’s not a surprise that this case ended up being about citizens.”

Being a special police officer providing armed security at federal buildings in the District added to Mr. Heller’s credibility and highlighted what he and his team saw as an infringement on his rights.

“We were looking for people with good stories,” said the lead attorney in the case, Alan Gura of the D.C. firm Gura and Possesky.

Mr. Heller’s life story is somewhat meandering, and he sometimes has a hard time recalling the chronology and finer details.

“I have to look at my resume to know what I’ve done,” he said.

A self-described Army brat, Mr. Heller lived in several states, in France and other places in Europe as his father moved from station to station.

He attended 20 schools in 12 years. Upon graduating from high school, he went into the Army, because he started to clash with his father. He spent his three years of service stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.where he was a paratrooper.

“Women want to get away from home because of friction with their mother, so they marry the first guy that comes along,” he said. “I wanted to get away from friction with my father, so I said, ‘OK, Dad, I’ll be cool, I’m going to the military.’”

After leaving the Army in 1962, Mr. Heller moved to the Districtand worked for a bank and then NASA as a computer clerk using skills he picked up “playing with [computer] punch cards” as a teenager.

He learned how to use some of the first computers from his father, who performed data processing of medical supplies in the Army.

Mr. Heller earned an engineering degree from Montgomery Community College in 1966 and became a computer programmer. He did that for several years and became a stockbroker in 1978, working for “small boutique” finance firms that operated locally.

The story of how Mr. Heller got to the Supreme Court is at times hard to believe and seems as lucky as it was deliberate.

By 1989, he had quit the finance industry after growing annoyed by increased federal oversight of the financial markets.

He lived on Capitol Hill across from the Kentucky Courts housing projects, a notorious drug area. He was growing ever fearful of the gun-toting drug dealers.

In 1993, he started renting a room to Dane von Breichenruchardt, a former doctor and combat pilot who was ferrying airplanes for the military.

Mr. von Breichenruchardt was a legal enthusiast who had a particular ambition for constitutional law, and both men were very interested in the Second Amendment.

Mr. Heller had stored his half-dozen guns with a friend in Maryland when the D.C. Council passed the handgun ban in 1976, because he did not want his guns grandfathered in under what he saw as an unjust law.

The men talked - casually at first - about challenging the District’s ban.

But Mr. Heller felt a heightened need to be able to protect himself. In 1997, Capitol Hill resident Adrian Plesha shot and injured a man who was attempting to burglarize his home.

Mr. Plesha was arrested for carrying a pistol without a license. He pleaded guilty and received 18 months of probation.

Mr. Heller was rattled by the case and more worried that he could become the victim of the dealers across the street or be arrested for using an illegal gun to protect himself.

“I said to Dane, ‘This could have been us,’” Mr. Heller recalls. “If someone said [we] dropped the dime, drug dealers could have kicked in the door and started shooting.”

The pair crafted a plan to get Mr. Heller hired as a security guard so that he would be qualified to carry a gun that he would not be allowed to bring home with him under D.C. law.

Mr. von Breichenruchardt planned to study constitutional law at Georgetown University while they tried to work on the case.

“When your nose is clean, you can jump right into security work,” Mr. Heller said. “And mine was cleaner than most.”

Among the first to recognize Mr. Heller’s potential in the case was Robert Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who knew Mr. Breichenruchardt and frequently spoke with him about challenging the law.

Mr. Levy was working with Mr. Neely, Mr. Gura and Steve Simpson, also of the Institute of Justice, to gather ordinary citizens to challenge the District’s gun ban when Mr. Breichenruchardt recommended Mr. Heller as a plaintiff.

“He seemed to me to be very concerned, and he wasn’t Looney Tunes,” Mr. Levy said of the 2002 meeting. “We were seeking to avoid Looney Tunes.”

Mr. Neely and Mr. Gura were looking for ordinary citizens to challenge the gun ban after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled in 2001 that the Second Amendment covers an individual’s right to bear arms.

They wanted to mount the challenge quickly to avoid being beaten to the Supreme Court by a criminal defendant, which they thought would cast a negative light on the gun-rights debate. They needed the financial muscle of Mr. Levy, a self-made millionaire in the investment industry.

The men chose Mr. Heller after eliminating several other candidates. The group launched their challenge against the District in U.S. District Court in March 2003 with six plaintiffs.

On July 16, 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, and D.C. Attorney General Linda Signer announced they would take the gun-ban issue to the Supreme Court after a lower court ruled in favor of Mr. Heller.

Of the six plaintiffs, only Mr. Heller was found to have standing because he was the only one who had tried to register a handgun in the District and had been denied.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Heller, effectively putting an end to the District’s gun ban.

Mr. Heller laughed heartily during a phone interview on Wednesday upon recalling how he was told by the Metropolitan Police Department after the Supreme Court ruling that he would have to pass a background check to register his nine-shot, .22 caliber Harrington and Richardson revolver.

He was incredulous that as an armed special police officer who patrols federal buildings in the District that he would have to wait for the check before his gun would be registered.

He continued to chuckle as he told a reporter how he has developed his own term for bureaucratic red tape: “government stupid.”

“I’m a police officer, and they put me through the government stupid,” he said.

The exchange is a rare glimpse of Mr. Heller’s lighthearted nature and sincere brand of humor that has often been overshadowed by the gravity of his legal challenge.

He speaks candidly and openly when he is not being bombarded by journalists and injects a bit of humor into almost any subject.

Mr. Heller, married in 2006 for the first time, appears comfortable with his age and is not afraid to poke a little fun at himself.

“If you have hair and teeth and are halfway good looking and you take a bath everyday, any man can get married at 60,” he said.

Mr. Heller acknowledges that courting his wife, Jane, a lawyer he met on the Internet in the midst of his legal battle, was a bit unconventional - just like his decision to work as a cashier at Safeway after leaving the finance industry.

“To me, it just seemed like the logical way to do it,” he said. “To everyone else that married their high school sweetheart, that seems out of the box.” His wife is in recovery from surgery and not able to comment for the story, Mr. Heller said.

He has kept a level head, despite reaching a notable degree of national and international celebrity.

Mr. Heller said he still hasn’t felt the repercussions of winning the case, though he said strangers have called him a “rock star” and asked for his autograph.

Spending little time basking in the victory, he is awaiting the results of an effort by the Libertarian Party to get him on the ballot to challenge Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

However, he acknowledges that going up against a historic figure like Mrs. Norton, who currently holds the seat, will be another uphill battle.

“When you’re growing up, you always think the other guy is always cooler,” he said. “Then you do something great and realize, ‘Hey, I’ve been great all this time and didn’t know it.’”

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