In the District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the district's law banning handguns violates the Second Amendment's “right to bear arms.” Attorneys for the district say that right is intended to protect state militias and does not apply to individuals, such as the residents who filed the suit. The court's decision could affect the power of local and state governments to regulate firearms.

The District of Columbia passed the gun ban shortly after achieving self-rule in 1976. The law requires residents to obtain a permit to keep a handgun, says Alan Heymann, spokesperson for interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles. But, permits generally are not available, with some exceptions, such as for police officers living in the district. The law also requires other firearms, such as hunting rifles, to be stored, locked and unloaded.

A group of residents sued to overturn the law in 2003. And, in March 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of the residents. The district appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Second Amendment applies to states, not individuals, and oral arguments were heard March 18.

Heymann expects a ruling before the court session ends in June, but he is unsure how the city will be affected by the case. “We could have an extremely wide ruling that implicates the Second Amendment for every single state and city and county in the United States, or we could have a very narrowly tailored ruling that simply affects the District of Columbia,” he says. “Or, we could have a ruling that says our gun law is perfectly constitutional, which is still our hope.”

Heymann says he does not expect the ruling to eliminate all reasonable regulation of firearms by cities and states. “They may change the scope of what kind of regulation is allowed, but I don't think anyone is expecting the Supreme Court to come out and say, ‘We're opening this thing wide up. Everybody can have handguns [anywhere] and nobody is allowed to regulate them.’”

The Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) filed an amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief in the case on behalf of several cities, claiming gun bans are constitutional. The brief also says that more than 60 percent of the 340,000 homicides reported in large cites over the past 30 years have involved guns, and maintains that the Second Amendment was written to apply only to the federal government, not state and local government. “Back then, the fear was giving the powers to the national government of an army, that it would overpower the state militias,” says John Daniel Reaves, USCM legal counsel.

The argument may give the Supreme Court a “way out,” Reaves says. “There is a doctrine — long standing — that if the court can avoid a difficult constitutional decision, it will do so,” he says. “This is the way one can do that and to say the Second Amendment just isn't applicable to the District of Columbia.”

Kennesaw, Ga., is following the case, but for a different reason than Washington. Since 1982, every resident of the metro-Atlanta community has been required by law to keep a handgun in their house. “We've been the polar opposite of places like Washington that have severe restrictions and outright bans,” says Kennesaw Police Department Lt. Craig Graybon.

The council passed the law, in part, as a retort to Morgan Grove, Ill.'s ban on handguns that was passed the year before. “[Town officials and residents] wanted to make sure that they knew the people of Kennesaw supported Second Amendment rights,” Graybon says.

The ordinance is meant as a statement of city leaders' beliefs and has never actually been enforced, he says. “If anything, [a decision against the D.C. ordinance] will tend to support our ordinance that requires all heads of households to own a firearm,” he says.

  • The District of Columbia and Chicago are the only local governments with bans on handguns. No state bans all handguns.
  • Boston, Chicago, New York, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, ban assault weapons, as do seven states: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii and Maryland. Maine and Virginia also regulate the sale of assault weapons.
  • Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Columbus, Ohio, ban large-capacity ammunition magazines.
  • Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia require a waiting period before residents purchase some or all firearms.

Source: “Regulating Guns in America,” San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, February 2008.