The most tantalizing element of the latest gun rights decision in Washington D.C. is the hope that it raises for law-abiding New Yorkers who want to be able to carry a firearm outside of their homes. The decision was issued by a United States district judge, who has blocked the District of Columbia police from enforcing a ban on handguns. The judge who did this, Frederick Scullin Jr., normally sits at Syracuse, New York. He was assigned to this case by the chief justice of America. So the hope is that when he returns to his regular chambers he’ll eventually get a chance to bring some sense to his own state, where by virtue of radically anti-gun authorities the Second Amendment is a dead letter.
Not that New Yorkers should hold their collective breath. It took the plaintiffs something like five years to get a ruling out of federal district court in Washington. The individuals — three men and a woman in four separate efforts to get permits to carry guns in the Columbia District — launched their efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. That gave a person in capital the right to keep a loaded pistol at home. The Supreme Court later, in McDonald v. Chicago, applied that ruling to the states. Judge Scullin said he didn’t see what grounds were left for Washington to ban its own residents or visitors from carrying a pistol.
Now the District of Columbia authorities are going to have to decide what to do about it, and maybe they will win at the Court of Appeals. But that course is a bit tricky. The Court of Appeals is the same court that originally ruled in favor of Dick Heller, the retired security guard who wanted to keep his loaded pistol in his home. The Appeals court found that the right to keep and bear arms in the Second Amendment belongs not to a “well-regulated militia” but to the people. That’s because of the actual language of the Constitution, which speaks in plain language of the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” shall not be even infringed.
That appeals ruling, moreover, was sustained by the United States Supreme Court, in a opinion that Justice Kagan, in her confirmation hearing, described as “settled law.” It was the first time since the Bill of Rights was ratified that the high court had really sorted out the plain meaning of the Second Amendment. Since the Supreme Court has spoken, though, little has happened. Not since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door — after the Supreme Court had spoken on school integration — has there been such an effort to evade and thwart a ruling in respect of constitutional rights. So we wonder whether the ruling in Palmer, even though it is so far by but a district, could mark a turning of the tide.
Feature the latest dispatch from the Washington Post’s legal blog, which noted that it is “rarely easy” for a court to strike down a law. “But as the opinion in Palmer v. D.C. shows,” the Post added, “there was no other option. Judge Frederick Scullin’s opinion carefully walks through the Supreme Court’s precedents of District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, and their lower federal court progeny. Based on these precedents, it is implausible to claim that that the right to ‘bear’ arms means nothing more than the right to ‘keep’ arms inside the home.”
A separate report in the Post says the District Police have been told that District residents are permitted to carry pistols if the weapons are registered and “that residents of other jurisdictions without felony records would not be charged under the ban on carrying pistols.” It could be even more significant, in that the Post legal blog quoted a broadcast report as suggesting the district would grant reciprocity to permit holders from various states — at least until a stay of the ruling is granted during the appeals process.
That all this legal effort is needed for law-abiding citizens to exercise Second Amendment rights is a national scandal. But we are in an era where such progress is news. Our own hope is that Judge Scully will get back to the Empire State and that someone will land a case in his court and that he will start the ball rolling here. New York is one of the states that explicitly conditioned its ratification of the Constitution on a “declaration of rights” that included the right to keep and bear arms. It is way past time for the federal courts to step in and redeem that pledge.