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Give ‘Em Heller

Why do we need a Supreme Court case to reassert a people's right to self-defense?

By 3.25.08

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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in its first Second Amendment case since 1939. The historic D.C. v. Heller case involves a challenge to the District of Columbia's total ban on the possession of usable weapons for self-defense in the home.

The plaintiff, D.C. resident Richard Heller, argues that the ban violates his rights under the Constitution, which declares that the "right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Lawyers on both sides relied mostly on arguments about the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment, specifically whether it applied to individuals and to what extent the individual right, if it existed, could be reasonably regulated. But whatever decision the Court reaches, we need to think about larger questions.

Why would a citizen want to own a gun? These days, the most obvious reason is the one offered by Heller himself: self-defense. The District of Columbia is a particularly dangerous city, with a violent crime rate more than three times the national average.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who has tenaciously defended his city's gun laws all the way to the Supreme Court, said at a press conference on the Court steps after the hearings that D.C.'s gun laws helped make his city a safer place.

FENTY IS BLINDLY assuming that just because a law was meant to make the city safer, it must have worked according to plan. In some categories of crime, things have gotten better since 1976, when the D.C. gun ban went into effect. The rape rate per 100,000 residents has indeed fallen by more than half since then, as has the burglary rate. Of course, those results are in line with national trends in crime reduction, and cannot be meaningfully credited to D.C.'s gun laws.

When it comes to the more meaningful data of murders per capita, D.C.'s rate was still higher in 2005 than it was in 1976. It has been higher every year but one since the gun ban passed, and most years it's been enormously higher.

For 10 of the past 30 years, the District's per capita murder rate was more than twice as high as it was the year the ban passed. D.C. residents have no reason to think its gun laws have done anything to make them safer.

Beyond statistics, two of the original plaintiffs in the Heller case have specific stories that reveal exactly why law-abiding citizens would want the right to possess handguns. One was a woman who was threatened in her own D.C. home for daring to stand up to neighborhood drug dealers. Another was a man who once saved a friend's life and his own from a gay-bashing mob by brandishing -- not even firing -- his handgun.

The ugliest aspect of D.C.'s laws is that they inherently presume that your life is not worth protecting -- given that government cannot, and does not promise to, provide effective police protection in every life-threatening situation.

If the Supreme Court declares that the Second Amendment, like its sister amendments, protects an individual right, then many localities besides D.C., from New York City to Chicago, may have to rethink aspects of their gun control laws. The full meaning of the Court's decision will play out in the political arena.

Regardless, our right of self-defense is central to our right to life. For D.C. -- or any other city or state -- to completely deny us the most effective means of protecting our homes and our families is unacceptable. We shouldn't need the Supreme Court to tell us that.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of the forthcoming Cato Institute book Gun Control on Trial.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).