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Self-Defense is a Basic Human Right

Thursday, April 3, 2008

As the Supreme Court deliberates whether or not the District of Columbia’s 30-year-old gun ban is unconstitutional under the Second Amendment, a deep background look is critical to understanding what is at stake in terms of our personal liberties and the rights that ensure them.

This case--District of Columbia v. Heller--is about whether the Second Amendment is an individual right. And it is about whether such an individual right can be abrogated by government to render it meaningless in word and in practice for individual Americans.

If peaceable citizens are disarmed of firearms, do they still possess a right?

For Americans who believe in the Second Amendment--especially for District of Columbia residents--the day of reckoning before the United States Supreme Court has been 30 years in the making.

The story of the plight of disarmed D.C. residents really begins on the night of March 16, 1975, when three women, sharing a townhouse, were awakened by the sound of their door being kicked in. This was no ordinary burglary or home invasion; this was a horrific, unspeakable crime.

Two of the three roommates had rooms upstairs. They were awakened by the screaming of their friend downstairs who was being beaten, raped and sodomized by two men.

Carolyn Warren called the police and was told help was on the way. She and her other upstairs roommate watched in horror as a police car passed their home, merely slowing down. They called the police a second time. This time, there was no response at all. After an hour, hearing no sounds from the floor below, they called down to their friend, but merely alerted the rapists to their presence.

After that, all three women were forced to endure 14 unspeakable hours of sexual torture.

The women sued the District of Columbia and after two years--during which time D.C. instituted its gun ban--they lost. The case is Warren v. District of Columbia.

The D.C. Superior Court ruled, “ ... a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular individual citizen.” (Emphasis added.)

Thus the rule that the District had no duty to protect its individual citizens was in place when, in July 1976, the D.C. City Council enacted its draconian gun ban.

If the lower court ruling in Ms. Warren’s case was devastating to her and every law-abiding resident of the District of Columbia, the ruling of the D.C. Court of Appeals, 444 A.2d 1(D.C App. 1981), was worse:

“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.” (Emphasis added.)

It begs the basic question: If the police have no duty to protect individuals in their homes, who does?

The individual does. You and I do. Average citizens.

That is why the Second Amendment has such deep relevance in modern times. There is nothing archaic and outmoded in the notion that people must have the means to defend themselves against violent criminal predators. Self-defense is a basic human right. It is the fundamental reason that countless tens of millions of Americans own firearms.

The protection of that bedrock human right--eviscerated by a tyrannical government--lies at the heart of the historic challenge to D.C.’s gun ban supported by a host of civil liberties groups including the NRA, the oldest such organization in the nation.

Yet in the District of Columbia that right--for 30 years--has been denied to its law-abiding residents.

It is clear that the D.C. gun ban law denies that most fundamental basic human right of self-defense by criminalizing possession of handguns by peaceable citizens, and criminalizing armed defense in the home with any legally possessed, operable and ready firearm. Think about this. A disassembled or disabled gun is no gun at all, and that is what D.C. residents are “allowed” to possess in their own homes. (Emphasis added.)

The D.C. gun ban is, in essence and in fact, a ban on armed self-defense.

Under the D.C. law, registered long guns (and the few remaining legal handguns) must be broken down, unassembled, trigger-locked or otherwise kept inoperable at all times in the home. It is a crime to keep any firearm loaded.

As for handguns, the D.C. ban, in reality, banned compliance with the long-existing gun registration law. Under that ban, owners of registered handguns were allowed to re-register their arms by an absolute deadline--September 24, 1976. There-after, no handguns could be registered by honest citizens. Thus, by shutting the door on registration, new legal possession of handguns was banned.

During the short time when D.C.’s law-abiding handgun owners could re-register their arms, many citizens believed the law was open for them to register their handguns for the first time. They were turned away and told they would not be allowed to comply and that their guns would become contraband. If they kept those unregisterable guns, they could be tracked down and prosecuted.

But there is something else that made the D.C. ban even more evil: The D.C. gun registration law itself--under a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling--Haynes v. U.S. (390 U.S. 85, 1968)--arguably exempted criminals. So, those under federal law prohibited from owning guns were exempt, while ordinary citizens could be punished for owning an unregistered gun. Under that decision--which many top legal experts tell me still applies in the District of Columbia--the court ruled:

“We hold that a proper claim of the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination provides a full defense to prosecutions either for failure to register a firearm ... or for possession of an unregistered firearm ... “ (Emphasis added.)

On top of all this, in 1994, the City Council made it a criminal act for anyone to carry a handgun in the home without a license. The D.C. registration law and the ban made potential criminals out of peaceable citizens, whose only relationship to criminal violence was being thrust into the role of unarmed innocent victims in their own homes.

Equally insane is the fact that, in the ensuing 30 years of ever-metastasizing criminal violence, D.C. officials have totally ignored the truly effective anti-criminal tools at hand.

As violent crime by armed criminals has steadily escalated over the 30 years since the D.C. ban, District officials and the media have blamed what they have called the “lax” laws in neighboring states. Let me put that another way: They blame freedom of others for the failure of their tyranny. (Emphasis added.)

As for D.C.’s armed criminal predators, as any NRA member knows, federal firearm law--then and now--provides harsh penalties for possession, acquisition, use, and interstate transportation of any firearm by violent felons and fugitives. However, the District has utterly failed to use that law to arrest, prosecute and jail armed predators. As a result, illegally armed criminals have continued to prey on the disarmed, innocent citizenry of our nation’s capital.

But such prudent action by city officials would have destroyed their anti-Second Amendment agenda.

We--the large community of pro-gun rights activists--have been preparing for the moment that is at hand. Whatever its outcome, American gun owners need to keep in mind that when we elect the next president, we will be shaping a Supreme Court that could reach 50 years into the future, and in that future hangs all the freedoms we hold dear.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.