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"Baghdad, D.C."?

Friday, June 6, 2008

We’ve often reported on the quandary the leaders of our nation’s capital face.  They govern a city that has had an outright ban on handguns for more than three decades, yet they’re constantly looking for panaceas for the District’s high rate of gun crime.  How ironic it is, that a city that should be an anti-gunner’s utopia is constantly plagued with high levels of gun violence.  Burying their heads in the sand, these leaders continue to try to avoid the unavoidable:  Criminals don’t obey the law and have ignored the gun ban since its inception.                       

Enter yet another doomed-to-fail attempt at a remedy—the so-called “Neighborhood Safety Zone” (NSZ).

Announced this week by D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the NSZ program involves setting up military-style checkpoints in the violence-plagued Trinidad section of the city.  At each of these checkpoints, every vehicle will be stopped.  The occupants of the vehicle will be ordered to identify themselves, and to prove a “legitimate” reason for being in the area.  Police will search cars if they suspect there are guns or drugs inside, and will arrest people who do not cooperate.  Apparently, bicycle and pedestrian traffic will not be stopped.  Perhaps the assumption is that only those traveling in cars will be illegally armed. 

The plan faces so many civil liberty concerns it’s mind-boggling.  Not surprisingly, many groups have come out against it. 

In a June 5 Washington Post article, Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Washington office said, “My reaction is, welcome to Baghdad, D.C.  I mean, this is craziness.  In this country, you don’t have to show identification or explain to the police why you want to travel down a public street.” 

In a D.C. Examiner article the same day, District Councilwoman and George Washington University constitutional law professor Mary Cheh said, “It’s still a free country.  You can travel where you want and not have to explain yourself to police.” 

And, also according to The Examiner, a top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office warned D.C. officials two weeks ago that the plan might be unconstitutional.  The Examiner reported that in a May 20 e-mail to police officials, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley Weinsheimer raised questions about whether police can stop a driver with a disability or what police will do if a car has six occupants, but only one resident.  He also expressed concern over police officers’ determining who is considered “legitimate,” and if those determinations might lead to questions of selective prosecution. 

“As you can see, I am very concerned that the NSZs will not pass constitutional muster or at least that there are so many circumstances that will lead to discretionary calls on the part of officers that as applied, the NSZs will be unconstitutional,” Weinsheimer wrote. 

But Interim D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles isn’t worried.  Nickles said that his office reviewed the initiative and that similar efforts had survived court tests.  “I don't anticipate us being sued.  But if you do want to sue us, the courts are open.” 

All this in a city where guns are outlawed!

The NSZ program is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

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