Capital Sources: Taking Aim at D.C.'s Gun Law

The District of Columbia has the most restrictive gun laws in the country. But that's a distinction the nation's capital will soon lose—if Robert Levy prevails. Levy was born in Washington, but left years ago; a resident of Naples, Fla., who made a fortune as an investment analyst, he is now a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. A critic of what he sees as unnecessary government regulation, he rounded up six D.C. plaintiffs who either owned firearms or wanted to, for self-protection, and helped bankroll their challenge to the city's gun law—which makes it illegal to own or possess an unregistered handgun (D.C. stopped registering handguns back in 1978). The city permits registered "long" guns like shotguns and rifles, but they must be disassembled or disabled with trigger locks, and it's illegal to use a firearm of any kind in self-defense—even in the owner's home. The suit, which is being bankrolled by Levy, has been successful so far; in March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found the gun law unconstitutional. Earlier this month, D.C. officials announced plans to take the case (Parker v. District of Columbia) to the Supreme Court, in hopes of having the appeals court's ruling overturned. If the high court agrees to hear Parker, it could finally settle one of the biggest arguments in constitutional law: whether the Second Amendment's right to "keep and bear arms" is an individual right or was meant to apply only to members of a "well-regulated militia." NEWSWEEK's Daren Briscoe spoke with Levy about the suit's prospects, and what drove him to bring it to court. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you file this suit?
Robert Levy:
First, because I'm a fervent believer in the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, and I read the Second Amendment as securing an individual's right to keep and bear arms. In most jurisdictions, the courts have read the Second Amendment only to protect members of militias. In D.C., that issue has not been resolved. I saw an opportunity, with my two co-counsels, to vindicate Second Amendment rights and to establish a precedent that, if it reached the Supreme Court, would be applicable across the nation.

You don't own any guns personally. Why not?
While I believe the Constitution secures my right to own guns, as a practical matter, I don't sense the need to do so. I live in a safe area, a relatively affluent area, and crime isn't a major issue where I live. I don't have the same need for self-defense as the six plaintiffs in the Parker case.

Why is the Second Amendment so important?
Originally it was important as a protection accorded to American citizens against a tyrannical government. But even before the Constitution was written, even before the U.S. government was formed, the right existed. It was a means of self-defense, and today the right to bear arms protects us against predators. It's important to note that the Second Amendment doesn't grant a right to bear arms. It says the right to keep and bear arms "shall not be infringed," meaning that it already existed.

How expansive is your view of what the Second Amendment protects? What if I want to walk around carrying a fully automatic machine gun?
The right to keep and bear arms, like all other rights, is not absolute. Under the First Amendment, we can't incite other people to riot. Under the Fourth Amendment, reasonable searches are permitted. Well, in the case of the Second Amendment, there can be reasonable regulations. It's quite clear that some weapons can be regulated, weapons of mass destruction, for instance. Some persons can be regulated against bearing arms, minors for instance. Some uses can be and are regulated. Uses of guns in crimes, for instance. The question is what constitutes reasonable regulation.

D.C.'s mayor, Adrian Fenty, says that the gun laws have saved countless lives by keeping guns out of the hands of those who would hurt themselves or others. What's your response to that?
I've looked at the evidence. I've taught regression analysis and statistical inference, so I know a little bit about how to understand what it means, and the evidence is that gun laws do not help. Gun restrictions tend to increase violence. So, on both a constitutional basis and as a general matter, these gun restrictions have been counterproductive. The evidence is that more gun laws lead to increased crime and more guns lead to decreased crime.

You're paying for this case out of your own pocket. How much has it cost you?
I have paid for the whole thing, but a good part of this case was put together on donated time on the part of the attorneys involved. My co-counsel Clark Neily and I are working on this pro bono, and our lead counsel, Alan Gura, is working at subsistence-level wages. But I've spent a sizable sum of money, a substantial five-figure number.