A New Shot At History

Washington, D.C., has the toughest gun-control laws in the country. For 31 years, it has been illegal in the nation's capital to buy, sell or own a handgun. Residents may keep shotguns or rifles—but only if they are stored unloaded, and either disassembled or disabled with trigger locks. Even so, Damon Sams doesn't spend much time worrying about restrictions on his right to bear arms. Now 19, the former drug dealer got his first gun, a .380 pistol, at 13, when he started selling marijuana and later crack on a street corner in Southeast Washington. "I wanted people to respect me and be scared of me," he says. He also wanted protection. As a kid, he'd seen his father shot dead in the street. He's been shot himself on two separate occasions. Now an aspiring rapper who works with Peaceoholics, a D.C. group that tries to get kids off the streets, Sams no longer has any guns, but he says it wouldn't be much trouble to get them, ban or no ban. "I wasn't tripping on D.C. laws," he says with a smile.

The grand marble Supreme Court building is a few miles and a world away from the neighborhood where Sams grew up. But his life story might as well be exhibit A in a landmark gun-rights case the court will hear next spring. Dick Heller, a 65-year-old security guard who lives in a once drug-ridden D.C. neighborhood, challenged the city's gun ban. With backing from a group of libertarian attorneys who had been searching for just the right gun case to bring before the Supreme Court, Heller argued the law violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms. It will be the first time the court has heard a Second Amendment case since 1939, when it upheld a federal ban on the interstate transportation of sawed-off shotguns.

Americans have argued for decades about gun-control laws—do they reduce violence or strip weapons from honest citizens while leaving them in the hands of criminals? But remarkably, the justices have never squarely answered the question at the heart of the gun debate: what does the Second Amendment mean? Its wording is maddeningly ambiguous: "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." Did the Framers intend to protect an individual right to bear arms, or is the amendment a relic from another era, intended to provide for long-defunct state militias, and therefore meaningless today?

The justices will now likely confront that question. If they reject the argument that there is an individual right to bear arms, then the D.C. law and other federal, state and local gun-control measures will be safe from the courts. But if the justices adopt the individual-rights view and strike down the D.C. restrictions, it will set off a wave of new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of gun-control laws in cities and states nationwide. That doesn't mean all those laws would be struck from the books. Even if the justices decide there is an individual right to bear arms, they conceivably could still uphold the D.C. ban as a reasonable measure to protect public safety. (Though not likely, there is a possibility that the court will decide the case without getting into any of these details. On a technicality, the justices could rule the Second Amendment does not apply to Washington, a federal enclave ultimately controlled by Congress, and leave it at that.)

Viewed from the streets of D.C., the colloquy over the Second Amendment can seem out of touch. It's hard to argue that what Washington needs is more guns. So far this year, 169 people have been murdered in the city—77 percent of them victims of shootings. Heller, the man who brought the case, says statistics like that only reinforce his point. One day, he awoke to find a window of his Capitol Hill home punctured by a stray bullet. Another time, someone shot a hole near his front door. To Heller, who is licensed to carry a weapon for his job guarding federal buildings, the law has it backward. "I can protect [federal workers], but at the end of the day they say, 'Turn in your gun, you can't protect your home'."

Gun-control advocates argue the trouble is that most people aren't nearly as well trained as Heller. Studies show that rates of gun accidents, suicide and murder of family members are far higher in homes with firearms. Linda Singer, D.C.'s attorney general, agrees the gun ban hasn't done enough to keep down street shootings. But without it, she says, "We would have far more guns in the city."

As it is, getting a gun is absurdly easy in D.C., which is sandwiched between Maryland and Virginia, where handgun ownership is legal. The gun ban was never a concern when Sams went looking for a new weapon. He'd just call up friends in Maryland who would get him anything he wanted. "I know people with a gun license," he says casually. "You just throw them a couple hundreds."

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