City Desk

District’s Post-Heller Gun Laws Are OK, Judge Says

0326hellerUPDATED 5:22 P.M.

Gun restrictions passed by District lawmakers in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2008 Heller v. District of Columbia decision are constitutional, a federal trial judge has ruled.

The plaintiffs—which include Dick Heller, the retired security guard whose name tops the landmark case—challenged the constitutionality of city laws implementing a registration process and restricting assault weapons and extended magazines.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina did not buy what they were selling. In a decision handed down today [PDF], Urbina roundly rejected their arguments and granted summary judgment to the city.

"While the Court recognized [in Heller] that the Second Amendment protects a natural right of an individual to keep and bear arms in the home in defense of self, family and property, it cautioned that that right is not unlimited," Urbina wrote.

That said, Urbina added that "no clear directive is contained in the Heller decision itself" as to what standard of legal scrutiny gun laws should be subjected to vis-a-vis the Heller-defined "right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."

In the case of gun registration, Urbina found that that part of the law does indeed infringe upon the right to use guns in "defense of hearth and home," but he found that registration furthered a "important governmental interest." Citing deeply from the committee report prepared by the D.C. Council's judiciary panel, Urbina writes that "the Council provided ample evidence of the ways in which the registration requirements will effectuate the goal of promoting public safety."

Plaintiffs' arguments that the Supreme Court meant to legalize assault weapons and large ammo magazines didn't even get that far. "The plaintiffs assert that requiring an individual to pause to reload a firearm after discharging ten rounds of ammunition, like the invalidated trigger lock regulation, 'makes it impossible for citizens to use [firearms] for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional,'" Urbina writes. "This argument borders on the absurd."

Again, Urbina paid deference to city lawmakers: "The Council held extensive hearings and heard from numerous witnesses on both sides of the gun control divide before determining that assault weapons and large capacity ammunition feeding devices constitute weapons that are not in common use, are not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes and are 'dangerous and unusual,'" Urbina writes. "The court does not see fit to override that decision."

UPDATE, 3:25 P.M.: At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who shepherded the gun bill through the council, reacts: "I'm pleased with the decision. I am pleased that the court recognized recognized the public safety implications of this gun-control debate."

Mendelson says he expects ongoing appeals from the Heller plaintiffs. "Their scheme all along has been to strike down gun control. They would have virtually no gun control, and by virtually, I mean maybe they'd not allow bazookas. That doesn't lead to a safe society, particularly the nation's capital."

In a release, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence also lauded the decision: "Once again, the courts have rejected the gun lobby’s attempt to transform the core right to guns in the home for self-defense into a mandate for their ‘any gun, anywhere’ agenda," says the release.

UPDATE, 5 P.M.: Stephen P. Halbrook, the attorney for the Heller plaintiffs and a veteran of 2nd Amendment cases, says an appeal is "highly likely."

Halbrook takes issue with two aspects of Urbina's decision: First, his decision to apply a standard of review to the new D.C. laws that is "inconsistent with the original Heller decision by the Supreme Court." Second, he says, is that Urbina over-relied on the D.C. Council's committee report and "simply ignored the evidence we presented" challenging its findings.

The case would head to a three-judge panel of the District's federal appeals court. Lurking in the background is the possibility that another Supreme Court case, McDonald v. City of Chicago, could further define the limits of constitutional gun regulation. That case was argued earlier this month, and a decision is almost certain to be handed down by the time Urbina's decision is reviewed.

UPDATE, 5:22 P.M.: Attorney General Peter Nickles offered the following statement: "I am gratified that the Court repeatedly recognized the reasonable and conscientious efforts that the Council and the Mayor made to strike the proper balance between addressing the legitimate rights of firearm owners, and taking every reasonable action to assure the safety of the District’s residents and visitors."

His boss, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, said, "Today’s ruling affirms our efforts to ensure the highest possible standards of safety for District residents."

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  • blogo

    I read the opinion. It is terrible.

  • blogo

    Also, the council did not call any witnesses for the semi-auto ban like the court claims.

  • maserfentyaintnogood

    Once this decision reaches the Supreme court it will be overturned. Another Clinton appointed judge failing to follow the most recent decision by the highest court in the land. A decision regarding the city of Chicago gun law will be struck down this summer and it probably will make clear that the 2nd amendment to the constitution is still in effect.

  • reader

    The opinion is 30 pages long. It's going to be tough to overturn this opinion on the "I don't like it" standard. Also, it was a motion for summary judgment, which assumes, arguendo (too big a word?), that all of the facts alleged by the plaintiff are true.

  • Evo

    It's a bad decision that will likely not stand. Urbina says that the Heller decision gave "no clear standard", but then used the dissent to form his own. Seems that you wouldn't look to the dissenters to understand the minds of the majority. Also, his logic that the 2nd Amendment doesn't protect a fundamental right because of what Scalia said about the ban on felons has a couple of fatal flaws. First, the decision only said that the ban was "presumptively" valid, which is not the same as "upholding" it, as Urbina put it. Second, voting, which is a fundamental right, mentioned as a right of citizens in 3 separate amendments, is also prohibited to felons, so such a ban says nothing about the status of a right as fundamental. The closest reading of the Heller decision indicates that the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for the purpose of self-defense is indeed fundamental and deserving of strict scrutiny, though possibly less so for other purposes, such as hunting and shooting sports. Even felons may possess a gun while in the immediate act of self-defense without incurring legal liability.

  • EFI, LLC

    I'd bet that Heller & his attorneys knew they'd lose this case just as they lost Heller I, and the decision will be appealed so that when they win it will be binding on FedGov and the states, especially since the incorporation issue will be settled by early summer.

    Also, for those interested in contributing to this effort, the US Bill of Rights Foundation - - is the force behind this lawsuit.