Like many crime-ridden cities, Washington, D.C. has not been able to keep guns away from the violent street gangs. But the city’s success in disarming responsible, law-abiding residents has been remarkable. No handgun can be registered in D.C. Even those few pistols registered a quarter of a century ago, prior to the district’s 1976 ban, cannot be carried from room to room without a license. All firearms in the home, including rifles and shotguns, must be unloaded and either disassembled or bound by a trigger lock. In effect, no one in the district can possess a functional firearm in his own residence. Naturally, the criminal class, undeterred by laws against murder and robbery, isn’t likely to be cowed by gun regulations. But honest, peaceable citizens will obey the regulations, and therein lies the problem.
Shelly Parker is one of those citizens. She resides in a high-crime neighborhood in the heart of D.C. People living on her block are harassed relentlessly by drug dealers and addicts. Ms. Parker decided to do something about it. She called the police — time and again — then encouraged her neighbors to do the same. She organized block meetings to discuss the problem. For her audacity, Shelly Parker was labeled a troublemaker by the dealers, who threatened her at every opportunity. This past June, the back window of her car was broken. The following month, a large rock came through her front window. Her security camera was stolen from the outside of her house. A drug user drove his car into her back fence.
In February of this year, a dealer known as “Nanook” started banging on her door and tried to pry his way into her house, repeatedly yelling, “Bitch, I’ll kill you, I live on this block too.” Nanook was eventually arrested. He may be prosecuted. But Ms. Parker knows that the police are “not going to do very much about the drug problem on my block.” That’s why she wants to have a functional handgun in her home for self-defense — just a garden-variety pistol, not a machine gun or assault weapon like the gangs are able to acquire without blinking an eye.
Shelly Parker and countless other D.C. residents should be able to defend themselves. They’re not asking to carry a weapon outdoors on the city’s drug-infested streets, where the sound of bullets regularly mocks the nation’s strictest gun ban. Their needs are more basic: a pistol where they live, so they can defend their property, their families, and their lives.
Yet if Parker has a handgun in her bedroom, she could face criminal penalties — arrest, prosecution, fine, even incarceration — because of the District’s preposterous gun laws. Upstanding citizens who reside in D.C., pay taxes in D.C., and obey D.C. laws are too often the victims of criminal predators. Still, the city insists that if someone breaks into their houses, their only choice is to call 911 and pray that help gets there in time. Anyone who’s ever used the city’s emergency phone service knows that a pizza can be delivered before the police show up.
Shelly Parker’s fight for the right of self-defense is now being litigated in a Washington, D.C. federal court. On behalf of Ms. Parker and five other at-risk residents, three attorneys and I filed a civil lawsuit, Parker v. District of Columbia, challenging the D.C. gun ban on Second Amendment grounds. The plaintiffs do not contend that Second Amendment rights are absolute. Surely, guns can be denied to unfit persons like felons, minors, and the mentally incompetent. And, of course, it’s reasonable to keep massively destructive weapons, with little practical use for self-defense, out of private hands. But otherwise, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the Constitution “protects the right of individuals … to privately possess and bear their own firearms.”
That’s also the position of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and an impressive array of legal scholars, including Harvard’s liberal icon, Laurence Tribe, and Yale’s highly respected Akhil Amar. They agree on two fundamental propositions: The Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms; but that right is subject to reasonable regulation. To the extent there’s disagreement, it hinges on what constitutes reasonable regulation; that is, where to draw the line. On that score, there can be no question that D.C.’s blanket prohibitions are patently unreasonable. That’s why Shelly Parker is finally going to win her fight for the right to self-defense.
— Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.