Reversing a 30-year-old ban, a federal court used the right-to-bear-arms amendment for the first time to overturn a gun-control law.
WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Friday for the first time overturned a gun-control law by declaring that the Second Amendment grants a person the right to possess firearms.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the capital's 30-year-old ban on keeping handguns in homes is unconstitutional.
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The 2-1 ruling outraged Mayor Adrian Fenty and other city leaders who said gun-related crimes could increase. But it elated opponents of strict gun controls because it knocked down one of the toughest laws in the country and vindicated their rights under the Second Amendment.
One other circuit has agreed with that view in a nonbinding ruling, but others across the country have rejected the premise that the Second Amendment applies to more than state militias. Legal experts said the conflict could lead to the first Supreme Court review of the issue in nearly 70 years.
The District of Columbia's law bars all handguns unless they were registered before 1976; it was passed that year in an effort to curb gun violence. But it has come under attack over the past three decades. Friday's ruling guts key parts of the law but does not address provisions that bar people from carrying unregistered guns outside the home.
Fenty, a Democrat, said the city is committed to pursuing additional appeals. "I am personally deeply disappointed and frankly outraged by this decision," he said. "It flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia."
U.S. gun bans
Washington, D.C., and Chicago are the only two major U.S. cities with sweeping handgun bans. While courts in other parts of the country have upheld bans on automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns, the D.C. law is unusual because it involves a prohibition on all pistols. Washington state has liberal gun laws; no city restricts firearms for adults.
The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff
City attorneys cautioned that it would take at least 30 days for the court's decision to go into effect, during which time the District likely will appeal. During an appeal, which could last more than a year, the current law would remain in effect, the attorneys said.
The ruling was the latest development in four years of litigation waged by six D.C. residents who said they wanted to keep guns in their homes for self-defense. Alan Gura, an attorney for the plaintiffs, issued a statement saying: "This is a tremendous victory for the civil rights of all Americans."
Senior Judge Laurence Silberman wrote the majority opinion, also signed by Thomas Griffith. Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented.
“We conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms," Silberman declared in the 58-page majority ruling.
The residents filed their lawsuit — Parker v. the District of Columbia — months after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that gun bans violate the Second Amendment. They were aided by the Cato Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates personal liberties.
The suit said the ban on handgun ownership violated 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."
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan dismissed the suit a year later, saying the Second Amendment was narrowly tailored to membership in a "militia" — which he defined as an organized military body.
The case moved on to the appellate court, with the National Rifle Association (NRA) siding with the pro-gun faction, and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence joining with the District. Reflecting the case's national importance, various state governments lined up on each side.
In the majority opinion, Silberman wrote that some federal and state courts have sided with the position advocated by the District, that the Second Amendment's use of "militia" means just that. Others have ruled that the amendment is broader, covering individual rights of people who own guns for hunting or self-defense.
The Supreme Court last addressed the Second Amendment in 1939, but it did not hold that the right to bear arms meant specifically that an individual could do so.
Friday's majority opinion said the District has a right to regulate and require registration of firearms but not to ban them outright in homes. The ruling also struck down a section of the D.C. law that required owners of registered guns, including shotguns, to disassemble them or use trigger locks, saying that would render the weapons useless.
In her dissent, Henderson wrote that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms relates to those Militia whose continued vitality is required to safeguard the individual States." She also said the Second Amendment does not apply to the District because it is not a state.
Silberman was nominated to the appellate court by President Reagan and Griffith by President Bush. Henderson was nominated by the current president's father.
Critics long have said the D.C. law is ineffective, noting that the city has had hundreds of homicides in recent years, most committed with handguns. Of last year's 169 homicides, 137 were committed with firearms, D.C. police said. Enforcing the strict handgun ban is difficult with so many guns on the streets, but police last year recovered more than 2,600 guns.
This was not lost on the appeals court. In a footnote, Silberman noted that "the black market for handguns in the District is so strong that handguns are readily available [probably at little premium] to criminals. It is asserted, therefore, that the D.C. gun-control laws irrationally prevent only law-abiding citizens from owning handguns."
Tom Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who is one of the six plaintiffs who prevailed Friday, said he once used a handgun to ward off potential attackers when he lived in San Jose, Calif. He said the ruling will help residents protect themselves.
“Let's be honest. Although there are many fine officers in the police department, there's a simple test: Call Domino's Pizza or the police and time which one gets there first," Palmer said.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, "The only people who have anything to fear from a decision like this are the people who intend to break into someone's home in the middle of the night."
But former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said weakening the gun law "opens the door to more people having more access to guns and putting guns on the streets."
If the District carries through on an appeal, the first step would be to seek a review by the full D.C. Circuit. After that decision, the Supreme Court could be asked to review the case.
Constitutional scholars said the case is ripe for an airing before the Supreme Court no matter which side prevails in a circuit-court appeal. However, some scholars warned that a loss in the high court by the District could create an even stronger precedent against strict gun laws.
District resident Kenny Barnes, who became a vigorous gun-control advocate after his 37-year-old son was shot to death on a Washington, D.C., street, called the ruling "crazy."
“What kind of message are you sending?" Barnes asked. "This is not Dodge City in the 1800s."
Washington Post reporters Tom Jackman, Elissa Silveman and John Wagner and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.