Why You Should Care About Parker v. District of Columbia

Posted: May 01, 2007 10:43 AM
Why You Should Care About Parker v. District of Columbia

There is a case working its way to the Supreme Court that might settle one of the biggest unanswered questions in constitutional law: Does the Second Amendment guarantee an individual right to own a gun? Whether or not you own a gun, this is a case you should care about.

I’m not just saying that because I’m the immediate past president of the National Rifle Association. (Last month I completed my two-year term as president and nine years as an officer of the NRA.) I’m also saying it as an attorney who’s been arguing cases in federal court for more than 30 years, and who understands how a clear precedent on a constitutional question can determine the outcome of a case.

There is a case moving towards the High Court that will likely give us such a precedent on your right to own a gun – a precedent that is either good or bad, depending on your point of view. That case is Parker v. District of Columbia.

I often get asked why there is such a passionate debate on whether the right to own a firearm is a civil right. Everyone agrees that the Constitution speaks about firearms. The Second Amendment speaks of, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

The disagreement is over what those words mean. Most people believe what is called the individual rights view of the Second Amendment, meaning that all law-abiding, peaceable citizens have the individual right to own firearms. The opposing interpretation is called the collective rights view, meaning that the Second Amendment is only a right of state governments to arm their National Guard units.

Polls show that more than 70% of Americans (correctly) believe that they have a civil right under the Constitution to own a gun. But in America we don’t decide constitutional controversies by taking a poll.

Only federal courts—and ultimately the Supreme Court—have the power to interpret the Constitution in a binding way. The Supreme Court has never spoken definitively on the scope or meaning of the Second Amendment. And the Court’s silence has allowed cities and states to enact broad, sweeping laws hostile to gun ownership.

The worst of these laws is the District of Columbia gun ban. If you live in our nation’s capital, you cannot have a handgun or a readily-usable rifle or shotgun in your own home for self-defense. No ifs, ands or buts. It is a near-blanket prohibition on firearms and self-defense.

That brings us to the Parker case. The named plaintiff, Shelly Parker, lives in the high crime area of DC and has been threatened by thugs and drug dealers. She wants to be able to protect herself and she sued the city government over the gun ban. It’s shocking to realize that in one of the most violent cities in America, a woman is denied the tool that might save her life.

But it’s the law in the District, so she took the District to court.

On March 9, in a landmark ruling the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the DC gun ban as unconstitutional in a 2-1 decision. The DC Circuit Court held that the Second Amendment protects a citizen’s civil right to own firearms, adopting the individual rights view, and invalidated the DC law.

As you would expect, the DC government is appealing the ruling. Earlier this month DC petitioned for what is called an en banc rehearing. That means that all eleven eligible judges on the DC Circuit would hear the case, instead of the usual three-judge panel. As you read this we are waiting to see if the circuit court grants or denies that petition.

Regardless of whether the full DC Circuit Court hears the case en banc, the losing party will certainly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. And without going into all the legal rules and reasons that help determine whether the Court takes a given case, let me just say the odds are good that the Court will take this one.

This case is monumental. Already the DC Circuit Court opinion—if left untouched—will totally change gun ownership rights in the District of Columbia. And the DC Circuit is one of the most respected and well-credentialed courts in America. Its opinions and rulings have a major impact on courts and lawmakers all over the country.

But as important as the DC Circuit is, it pales in comparison to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court takes this case, it could have a huge impact all across our land.

There’s so much more to be said regarding this case. I’ll have more to write on this once the DC Circuit decides whether to rehear en banc. In the meantime, this is a case you want to be watching. There’s a lot at stake, not just for gun owners but for all who believe in upholding the Constitution and enforcing our civil rights.