D.C. Taxicab Commissioner
Certified Firearms Instructor
The National Rifle Association is working with a
handful of disarmed Washington, D.C., residents to
have their Second Amendment rights restored.
By James O. E. Norell
In the mid-1970s, two events made residents of the District of Columbia something less than third-class citizens in America.
The first was enactment of a local gun law in the summer of 1976 that banned most private handgun ownership through a bizarre prohibition on further compliance with existing law. Additionally, those new "police regulations" outlawed the use of any firearm for self-defense by outlawing the keeping of any readily operable firearm in the home.
The second event was a horrific crime involving three innocent women who were repeatedly beaten and raped, and the subsequent court case that left Washingtonians even more defenseless in the wake of the gun ban.
Beginning of the End
The D.C. gun law, which took effect Sept. 24, 1976, prohibited outright any private ownership of handguns that had not been registered by that date. But there was a cruel catch; registration was restricted to gun owners who had already registered their pistols. Individuals who did not re-register by the deadline were subject to criminal prosecution, and their guns automatically became contraband.
Men and women who stood in line thinking they could register a handgun that was not already on the government list were told they couldn't register. Given one week's notice, they were presented two options--turn their firearms over to police or get them out of the District.
The law created an instant class of de facto criminals out of good, peaceable people. Those Washingtonians who had all along refused to register their guns because they feared confiscation had unassailable proof for their concern.
The sum of those fears had been provided in 1975 when Councilman John A. Wilson moved to amend the D.C. gun regulations in what The Washington Star-News described as an effort to "confiscate--without payment of a bounty--the 52,000 privately-owned guns D.C. residents have registered with the police . . ."
The newspaper asked Wilson "if he didn't think it was breaking faith with the law-abiding citizens who registered their weapons under the existing regulations in the belief that they would be allowed to keep them." The city councilman blithely replied:
"That doesn't bother me. I didn't promise them anything."Having failed in that total ban, Wilson was among the prime movers to otherwise liquidate the rights of Washington's law-abiding firearms owners.
When the D.C. City Council finally passed its gun ban in July 1976, Congress- which ultimately controls the affairs of the District--enacted a 3-year moratorium on the city council's authority to change its criminal code. But the council finessed the moratorium with an end-run, placing its new gun control law under a different section of the D.C. code--Human Health and Safety.
As for long guns, the new law "allowed" residents to register rifles and shotguns, but required that those arms be kept in the home in a constant inoperable state, either through disassembly or by some other means. Ammunition (also requiring registration) had to be kept physically well away from any firearm. And it was a crime for an individual to carry an assembled firearm of any kind in the home without a license, which no ordinary citizen could get.
Immediately after the law took effect, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action challenged the city's authority to enact the ban before the D.C. Superior Court. The court--mindful only of the sanctity of "home rule"--ruled against NRA, a decision upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals. It was a valiant effort, but in vain.
The District government had given its good citizens a terrible choice--commit a crime by possessing the ready means to defend themselves, or place themselves at the mercy of criminals.
If people couldn't defend themselves, then who would?
Even More Defenseless in D.C.
That question was answered by the second event, which helped turn District residents into crime victims.
On March 16, 1975, three female roommates living in a townhouse in the District were awakened by the sound of the back door being kicked in. Before the woman sleeping in the second floor bedroom could react and flee, she was attacked by two men, who repeatedly beat, raped and sodomized her.
Two other women on the floor above heard their roommate's screams and acted. Carolyn Warren called police at 6:43 a.m. and was assured help was on the way. She and her other roommate then crawled out a window onto a roof for safety.
From their vantage, they saw a police car slowly drive past, then move on through a back alley, never stopping. The terrified women crawled back into the house and again called police. After hiding for half an hour and hearing silence downstairs, they assumed police had arrived. But when they descended to the second floor, they, too, were confronted by the attackers.
The police, in fact, did not respond at all to the second desperate plea for help. The three women were held captive for an unspeakable 14 hours of repeated beatings, rapes and assaults.
Warren and the other victims sued the District and the police department. In 1978, the D.C. Superior Court ruled that "a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen."
Later in 1981, the D.C. Court of Appeals went further and ruled, "The duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists."
The decision in Warren v. District of Columbia had no effect whatsoever on either the politicians who had disarmed innocent Washingtonians or on the media, who continue to support the gun ban with the false argument that people should depend on police for protection.
But that post-gun-ban decision--that police officers have no duty to protect individual citizens--will never be forgotten by key District residents who possess the will and the courage to fight back to reestablish constitutional rights taken away in 1976.
Absalom Jordan, an NRA Life Member, is a certified firearms instructor in a city where recreational shooting is all but extinct. He is also a long-time community activist who fought as a political insider to prevent the D.C. gun ban from being enacted. He is still angry about the Warren v. D.C. case.
"Oh, God have mercy," Jordan said in a recent interview. "It was the worst thing. It brings out what I see as the media's negligence in covering the loss of rights in the District. I have yet to see the media do any article about it. The press never raises the question."
But Ab Jordan does raise that question every time he speaks out to convince fellow residents that they must fight to regain their right to keep and bear arms and the attendant right to self-defense.
Sandra Seegars, a retired government worker who is also a high-profile activist and D.C. taxicab commissioner, says when she tells people about the Warren case, "their mouths just fall open."
She says people always ask the same thing. "If the police can't protect us, why can't we protect ourselves? Then a light bulb goes off. We've got to have a plan 'b.' We need to own guns for self-defense."
Both Seegars and Jordan live in the same dangerous neighborhood, and both have been victims of violent crime.
"If you've got a shotgun, it's got to be broken down," Seegars says. "So if someone breaks in your house, you have to tell them, 'Wait a minute, I've got to go to this one room where
I keep my gun. But don't touch me until I get it loaded, 'cause I've got to go to the other room to get the bullets.' It's ridiculous."
Jordan recalls debating with then-D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy when the City Council was moving on the gun ban. "He kept talking about he didn't want to go to handgun funerals," Jordan said. "I asked him, 'Walter, what kind of funerals do you like to go to? Do you like the funeral of someone who was raped and beaten and murdered by an assailant?"
Another plaintiff, Gardine Hailes, office manager for a prominent K-Street lobbying firm and civic activist, installed an alarm and bars at her home in response to a particularly destructive burglary. But still, she says, "I didn't feel that secure. It was a way that I never wanted to live."
As an activist involved in children's and poverty issues, Hailes helped organize neighbors and serves as chairman of a crime prevention committee. But that didn't fill the void either--the means for real personal security. "Physically, being a woman, you feel more vulnerable," she said.
"It was more out of anguish and frustration that I decided to arm myself. I would have preferred a small handgun, but learned I had only a single option- a shotgun." But like any other D.C. resident who keeps a registered shotgun, it must be rendered inoperable, in her case with a trigger lock.
Hailes, who had never handled firearms before, received training from an NRA-certified instructor, who brought her to the Second Amendment challenge. "It wasn't my plan to get involved in changing the D.C. gun law . . . People were not stepping forward, and I thought I should have the option if I did ever need to protect myself."
Hailes, Jordan and Seegars are deeply committed to working toward a day when honest D.C. residents can possess and lawfully use guns for defense in their homes.
Full Court Press
On April 4, the three, along with two other African American residents of D.C.--Carmela B. Brown, a writer and actress, and retired postman Robert N. Hemphill--filed suit in federal court challenging the District of Columbia gun ban with a series of strong constitutional arguments, bringing to bear the denial of Second Amendment rights, and denial of their rights to equal protection under the law and to due process under the Fifth Amendment.
Uniquely, the suit also brings into play the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Freedman's Act, which guaranteed former slaves the same rights afforded all other Americans--specifically among them, the individual right to keep and bear arms.
Jordan is especially taken with that aspect of the challenge. "I like the notion (that) our attorneys raised the question of the history of black people and the right to keep and bear arms. Throughout the history of this country, gun control has been used to disarm black people."
The legal action to strike down the D.C. gun ban names Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and d. c. Mayor Anthony Williams as defendants. Ashcroft was named because the U.S. Justice Department often prosecutes District gun cases.
The case bears the name Seegars v. Ashcroft, and is shorthanded simply to Seegars. Supported by NRA funding, it was filed by attorneys Stephen Halbrook and Richard Gardiner, who specialize in gun-rights cases.
Halbrook, among the most widely published authorities on the Second Amendment, has argued firearms rights cases three times before the U.S. Supreme Court and walked away with three wins, including success in seeing portions of the so-called Brady law declared unconstitutional.
In their initial complaint demanding the nullification of the District of Columbia gun ban, attorneys Halbrook and Gardiner defined the suit as "an action to vindicate the rights of residents of the District of Columbia to exercise the same rights accorded to American citizens in every state of the Union to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution . . . "Seegars is absolute in her belief that: "You should never let your rights be violated like this.
"It's so strange--it's the criminals that have got guns, but we can't have them. I think things would go differently if citizens could have guns legally."
Remarkably, those are virtually the same thoughts echoed by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton when hearing arguments Oct. 8 on the District's motion to dismiss the Seegars case.
In addition to claiming the Second Amendment is merely a "collective" right of the states to organize a militia and that none of the plaintiffs in Seegars have an individual constitutional right to keep and bear arms, the attorney representing the District, Daniel Rezneck, argued that the D.C. gun ban was effective in curbing crime.
Judge Walton--who previously had served 18 years on the D.C. Superior Court--replied, "These laws don't stop the bad guys from getting the guns . . . The bad guys are going to get the guns regardless."
To which the D.C. counsel surprisingly replied, "I agree with that, your honor."
Judge Walton then said, "Who they really stop are honest citizens who would maybe like to have guns because they might feel they would have better protection . . . "
The Justice Department, for its part, steered clear of any direct Second Amendment argument but asked the court to throw the case out, claiming that neither Seegars nor any of the other plaintiffs had been charged with violating the gun law and thus had no standing to bring their challenge.
In several exchanges with the Justice Department counsel, Judge Walton seemed to take sharp issue with that argument, at one point saying, "That a party should have to go out and put themselves in harm's way of not only getting a criminal record, but probably having to go to the D.C. jail--which is not a fun place to be--it seems to me somewhat harsh."
Plaintiff's attorney Halbrook spent much of his appearance before the court answering questions from Judge Walton about the meaning of the Second Amendment.
On a question on the militia, "a need for individual citizens to have weapons . . . in the event of an attack," as Judge Walton put it, Halbrook replied, "We don't know . . . that an armed populace will never be needed in the future." But that is not "the only purpose to secure a free state."
" 'Security' means security in our own home as well as security from foreign invasion . . . certainly the ability of a person to protect themselves in their own home is encompassed within the purpose of the Second Amendment."
Judge Walton promised a decision on the motions to dismiss within weeks.
Action on Capitol Hill
Proving there are more ways than one to fight to protect the Second Amendment rights of defenseless law-abiding citizens of Washington, D.C., a legislative solution is being sought by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and U.S. Rep. Mark E. Souder, R-Ind.
Both the Hatch and Souder legislation, strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, would repeal the District's handgun ban, end firearms and ammunition registration, and allow law-abiding residents to possess and carry operable firearms in their homes and businesses for self protection.
When he introduced S. 1414, the D.C. Personal Protection Act, in July, Hatch, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged his efforts "to restore the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and to defend their families against murderous predators. It is time to tell the citizens of the District of Columbia that the Second Amendment of the Constitution applies to them, and not only to their fellow Americans in the rest of the country."
Rep. Souder's bill--HR 3193--has already garnered 126 co-sponsors, while the Hatch bill has gleaned 25 co-sponsors.
As NRA members, you can make a difference in this battle. Write, call or e mail your senators and congressman and ask them to sign on as co-sponsors of S. 1414 and HR 3193.
Anti-Gun Rights Crowd Over the Top
The NRA-supported lawsuit to restore Second Amendment rights to the people of Washington, D.C., has served to smoke out the real beliefs of anti gun rights forces, with both the Violence Policy Center and the Brady Center ratcheting their positions to a radical degree. In fact, one group totally denied the existence of an American right to self-defense, while the other, for the sake of argument, embraced a position antithetical to religious freedom in America.