Courts and Congress Limit Rights of Local Government to Control Handguns

On March 9, 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned that city’s longstanding handgun ban, issuing a decisionthat will allow the city’s citizens to have working firearms in their homes. In a 2-1 decision, the judges ruled that the activities protected by the Second Amendment “are not limited to militia service, nor is an individual’s enjoyment of the right contingent upon his or her continued intermittent enrollment in the militia”, setting the stage for a Supreme Court review since other federal courts have ruled differently. If the appeal does go to the high court, it would be the Supreme’s first case in nearly 70 years to address the Second Amendment’s scope. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has announced that the District will appeal the ruling, vowing, “We intend to do everything in our power to work to get this decision overturned, and in the meantime, we will vigorously enforce our handgun law.

In response to the court ruling, Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, observed that “by disregarding nearly seventy years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, two Federal judges have negated the democratically-expressed will of the people of the District of Columbia and deprived this community of a gun law it enacted thirty years ago and still strongly supports.” The NRA, on the other hand, applauded the decision, claiming that the “D.C. gun ban is a failure that costs innocent lives.”The court decision removed, at least for the time being, the right of municipal governments to ban handguns, further restricting the ability of local governments to regulate the gun industry. In 2005, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Firearms Act, a bill that prohibits civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others. Several municipal governments had sued the gun industry for its negligent oversight of the retail distribution of handguns. The new law blocks Mayors from using courts to require the gun industry to absorb the costs of its products.

And in the Senate, pro-gun legislators looked to enact federal legislation that would further limit Washington, D.C.’s scope. Inspired by the Court of Appeals victory, and with the support of the National Rifle Association, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced she would reintroduce a piece of legislation aimed at making handguns legal in the District, a measure that previously passed in the House, but failed in the Senate.

New study shows benefits of local action

Even as the federal government acted on several fronts to restrict the ability of local governments to control handguns, a recent study from Milwaukee, Wisconsin shows the public health benefits of local action. In an article in the September 2006 Journal of Urban Health, researchers from the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health assessed the consequences of a decision by a gun store in Milwaukee to stop advertising Saturday night specials, cheap handguns frequently used in crimes. Prior to May 1999, a single gun store sold more than half of the guns recovered from criminals in Milwaukee. On May 10, 1999, the store decided to stop selling small, inexpensive handguns popular with criminals. According to the authors, over the next year, the “changed sales policy was associated with a 96% decrease in recently sold, small, inexpensive handguns used in crime in Milwaukee, a 73% decrease in crime guns recently sold by this dealer, and a 44% decrease in the flow of all new, trafficked guns to criminals in Milwaukee.”