Jacob Sullum

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the District of Columbia's gun restrictions, the subject of a case the court will hear next Tuesday. Conceding that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms, Tribe said that right does not rule out a decision to ban handguns while allowing "rifles, shotguns and other weapons less likely to augment urban violence."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed, concluding that the district cannot constitutionally ban the type of gun most commonly used for self-defense. But even if Tribe is right that the Second Amendment allows the District of Columbia to ban handguns, he is wrong to assume District of Columbia residents are free to use long guns instead.

The District of Columbia requires that all firearms in the home, including rifles and shotguns, be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device." That "safe storage" requirement makes it pretty hard to use (SET ITAL) any (END ITAL) gun for self-defense, except maybe as a club. It makes the District of Columbia's gun laws look extreme even compared to those of other cities that ban handguns. If D.C.-style gun control does not violate the Second Amendment, it's hard to imagine what sort of gun control would.

The "safe storage" rule includes exceptions for guns kept in places of business and for guns "being used for lawful recreational purposes within the District of Columbia." It does not include an exception for self-defense at home.

Although three of the original plaintiffs in the D.C. gun-ban case said they wanted to keep functional long guns in their homes, the district did not claim they already were allowed to do so. Instead, it dismissed the very idea of armed self-defense as self-evidently absurd. "It cannot be seriously contended that the Second Amendment, even if applicable, guarantees private persons a right of ownership or possession of firearms on the basis of an asserted need to resort to self-help," the District of Columbia's lawyers told U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.

But when the plaintiffs appealed Sullivan's dismissal of their complaint, the district suddenly began to suggest there might be exceptions to the "safe storage" requirement that are not mentioned in the statute. "The (D.C.) Council appears to have recognized that on rare occasions, in the event of a true emergency when necessary for self-defense, a gun could be unlocked," it said.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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