On the last date of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 spring session, justices declared by a 5-4 decision in D.C. v. Heller that, yes, the Second Amendment does secure an individual right to keep and bear arms. With that, the high court voided the District of Columbia’s extreme regulations on gun ownership, which had amounted in practice to a complete ban on any usable weapon for self-protection, even in the home.
In retrospect, D.C. v. Heller seems almost inevitable, because of shifting public and academic attitudes toward gun rights. But victory came only after a protracted struggle, with many pitfalls along the way. It was pulled off by a small gang of philosophically dedicated lawyers—not “gun nuts” in any stereotypical sense, but thoughtful libertarians who believe Second Amendment liberties are a vital part of our free republic. Together they consciously crafted a solid, clean civil rights case to overturn the most onerous and restrictive set of gun regulations in the country. In the process, they set the stage for further legal challenges to other firearms restrictions from coast to coast.
Someone was going to reach the Supreme Court with a challenge to firearms regulation. In the 2001 Fifth Circuit case U.S. v. Emerson, a federal appeals court for the first time declared unequivocally that the Second Amendment, despite containing the word “militia” in its preamble, did indeed protect an individual right to bear arms. Though groundbreaking in the judicial system, that individual rights interpretation was already dominant within the legal academy, after decades of scholarship chipped away at the once-preeminent “collective rights” view that the amendment only protected either a state’s right to maintain a militia, or an individual’s rights within the context of militia service.
The Emerson decision rippled beyond the courts. On November 9, 2001, then–Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a memo to all U.S. attorneys praising the case for how it “undertook a scholarly and comprehensive review of the pertinent legal materials and specifically affirmed that the Second Amendment ‘protects the right of individuals, including those not then actually a member of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to privately possess and bear their own firearms.’ ”
Gun rights were on the rise politically as well. Democrats lost Congress in 1994, and the White House in 2000, in part because of a backlash against the 1994 assault weapon ban. In the 21st century, the party no longer makes gun control a major issue. On the state level, laws making it easier for citizens to carry weapons have also been proliferating over the past two decades; the number of states with concealed-weapon “shall issue” standards (objective criteria with little or no bureaucratic discretion) now stands at a de facto 37, up from just eight in 1986.
That was the legal, political, and social environment in which Heller was launched in 2003. “The timing was ripe,” says attorney Robert Levy, then a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute (and now its chairman) and the man who financed and spearheaded the case.
Yet Heller was almost derailed on a series of occasions, sometimes by the very people who cherish gun rights and constitutional protections the most, including the National Rifle Association (NRA). Many lacked confidence that the Court was ready to catch up with the legal academy. In the hour of opportunity, many blinked. Victory over these self-doubts provide a powerful reminder that, as Barry Goldwater reminded us, sometimes an overly fearful moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, and that even decades of bad policy and bad political philosophy can turn around with smart, tenacious efforts.
Parker Becomes Heller
The inevitable post-Emerson challenge to gun restrictions could well have come from a radically different point of view. Various Washington, D.C., public defenders, for example, were trying to apply Emerson to reduce the prison sentences of their clients—street criminals who typically had a whole host of charges hanging over their heads, not otherwise law-abiding citizens seeking to arm themselves in their home.
So, prodded on by suggestions from a young lawyer named Clark Neily from the libertarian public interest law firm the Institute for Justice, Robert Levy assembled a team that included his Cato colleague Gene Healy (who dropped out before the case reached the Supreme Court), Neily himself, and the private-practice attorney who eventually argued the case in front of the Court, a Virginia libertarian named Alan Gura. Levy’s team then went searching for the ideal clients.
D.C. was the best place to start litigating the Second Amendment. The district is not a state but a federal enclave under direct control of Congress (though it has its own government with home-rule leeway), so lawyers could sidestep the contentious and still-unsolved issue of whether the Second Amendment applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, which stipulates that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.…nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That amendment has for the past half-century or so been interpreted to apply the provisions of most of the Bill of Rights to state and local government actions.
Besides, the city had the most ridiculously severe gun laws in the country. According to D.C. Codes 7-2502.01, 7-2502.02, 7-2507.02, and 22-4504 and 4515, it was illegal to have a handgun without registering it, and you couldn’t register it if you didn’t already own it before the law was passed in 1976; it was illegal to have your long gun in the home in any condition other than unloaded and disassembled or trigger-locked; and if you had a registered handgun, even carrying it around your house could net you a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
After much searching by Levy’s team, six plaintiffs were selected. They filed the case on February 10, 2003. Back then, it wasn’t the Heller case, but the Parker case, named after original lead plaintiff Shelly Parker.
Parker, a black woman, had the potential to become a new kind of
civil rights icon, standing up not just for the right to be treated
fairly by other people but to take control over her own life and
safety. She had a dramatic story of the type that should make
everyone this side of Sarah Brady want to
overnight her an out-of-state mail-order handgun.
In February 2002, Parker, a former nurse now working in software design, moved to a neighborhood on the northeastern edge of Capitol Hill rife with tenacious drug gangs. She wanted her neighborhood to be a safer and more comfortable place for law-abiding citizens, and so made a nuisance of herself to local drug dealers, walking the streets as a one-woman citizen patrol, calling cops when she saw illegal activity, and installing a security camera for her yard.
By June of that year, Parker’s car window had been broken, her security camera had been stolen, and a gang lookout rammed a car into her back fence. When the first news stories about the case appeared, one young drug dealer, physically imposing at over seven feet tall, allegedly shook her gate one night, shouting, “Bitch, I’ll kill you! I live on this block, too.” Parker thought it would be a good thing for her to have a firearm to protect herself in her home; D.C. law forbade her from doing so.
But, like four of the other original six plaintiffs, Parker was found by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C.Circuit to lack legal “standing”—that is, actually suffering a direct injury under the law legitimate enough for her to legally challenge it. By March 2007, Dick Heller was the only plaintiff left. As many involved with the case would admit without wanting to stress it too much, Heller was probably the plaintiff they wanted least as a Second Amendment poster boy.
Heller isn’t a sweet lady trying to turn around a dodgy neighborhood; he’s an outspoken ideological activist seeking to push the federal government back within its constitutional bounds, and therefore (his lawyers fretted) potentially off-putting to judges, media, and citizens alike. One of his best friends, a thick, intense, walrus-mustachioed man named Dane vonBreichenruchardt, runs a small-scale political action group called the Bill of Rights Foundation, appears with Heller at most press conferences and events.