Friday, March 9, 2007

A federal appeals court yesterday struck down the District’s 30-year-old gun ban, ruling that the right to bear arms as guaranteed in the Second Amendment applies to individuals and not only to militias.

“The Second Amendment would be an inexplicable aberration if it were not read to protect individual rights as well,” the 58-page ruling said.

The 2-1 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned a 2004 lower-court decision against six D.C. residents who filed suit to keep guns for self-protection.

“The District insists that the phrase ‘keep and bear arms’ should be read as purely military language, and thus indicative of a civic, rather than private, guarantee,” the ruling said. “The term ‘bear arms’ is obviously susceptible to a military construction. But it is not accurate to construe it exclusively so.”

The court did not consider whether city officials could ban guns in public or in vehicles.

Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman wrote the majority opinion, which was supported by Judge Thomas B. Griffith. Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented, arguing that the Second Amendment does not apply to the District because it is not a state.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he was “outraged” by the court’s decision, which overturns a law that “has been unquestioned for more than 30 years.”

“Today’s decision flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia,” he said. “The ruling also turns aside longstanding precedents and marks the first time in the history of the United States that a federal appeals court has struck down a gun law on Second Amendment grounds.”

Linda Singer, the District’s acting attorney general, said the city will appeal the decision to the full 14-member federal appeals panel. The District’sgun laws will remain in place through the appeals process.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, celebrated yesterday’s decision, though he acknowledged the battle is far from over.

“We’re happy to see there’s a crack in the door for [the District] to join the rest of the country in full constitutional freedom,” Mr. LaPierre said, adding that his organization would be “watching the appeals process like everyone else.”

Alan Gura, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the ruling a “tremendous victory for the civil rights of all Americans.”

“The case has implications far beyond the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms,” he said. “Had the city prevailed, no individual right would be secure from governmental claims that it is no longer practical or beneficial, or from arguments that ‘the people’ protected in the Bill of Rights are merely a euphemism for the government.”

The District has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, prohibiting ownership of most guns that were not registered before 1977. Privately owned rifles and shotguns must be kept at home and stored unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or a similar device.

But gun violence has continued to plague the city.

In 2005, firearms were used to commit 157 of the District’s 196 homicides, or about 80 percent. That percentage has remained relatively consistent since 2001, when a five-year low of 78.4 percent of homicides were committed using guns.

FBI crime statistics for 2005 show 10,100 of the country’s 14,860 homicide victims, or 68 percent, were killed by guns.

So far this year, violent crimes involving guns in the District are on the rise, while all other violent crimes are decreasing, according to police statistics.

Congressional attempts to repeal the District’s gun ban in recent years have been criticized as attacks on the District’s right to home rule.

In 2004, the House of Representatives voted in favor of repealing the city’s restrictions on gun ownership and registration, even though the measure was opposed by the District’s mayor, 13 council members, the police chief and the city’s congressional delegate. The bill was not brought to a vote in the Senate.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative, implored the District to maintain its gun law while under appeal.

“We are not intimidated by this court’s virtual partnership with the NRA,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat. “We have successfully fought four attempts by Congress to overturn the District’s gun-safety laws. No gap in gun-safety protections for the citizens of the District of Columbia must be permitted.”

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said he was concerned that the logic of the decision could be extended to prevent the city from prohibiting guns in public as well.

“There has been an effort over the last couple decades to make the judiciary more conservative, and today is some of the fruits of that, and it’s not good for public safety,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the decision “judicial activism at its worst.”

“By disregarding nearly 70 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, two federal judges have negated the democratically expressed will of the people of the District of Columbia and deprived this community of a gun law it enacted 30 years ago and still strongly supports,” he said.

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