Earlier today (June 26, 2008) the Supreme Court of the United States, in a case styled District of Columbia v. Heller, overturned the ban on handgun ownership in Washington, D.C. that had existed since 1976.
The Court found that the ban was violative of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision Justice Scalia held that citizens had the right to have handguns in their homes for their own self defense.
Although not a great gun rights person, Birdsong actually believes the Court made the right call. This may be a surprise to many. However, remember that Birdsong was a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. (his hometown) during the 1980’s and actually prosecuted many people who were found in violation of the law. But it was a really silly law.
This is how it worked. In the mid 1970’s there had been an increase in handgun deaths in Washington. In 1976 the D.C. City Council passed a law that banned the legal ownership of unregistered handguns in D.C. The way the law was written anyone could buy a handgun but they must register it. Yet, the law mandated that no longer would one be able to legally register handguns in D.C. If you had a registered handgun prior to 1976 there was no problem – it was still legal. From 1977 to the present day D.C. would issue no more registration licenses for handguns.
The purpose of the law was to deter ownership of guns and supposedly end handgun related deaths. In 1976, the year the law was passed, there were 135 murders perpetrated by handgun violence. An exception to the new statute was that if you actually used an unregistered handgun in D.C. to legitimately protect yourself in a self defense situation after being attacked or robbed you would not be prosecuted for the crime of CPWL (Carrying a Pistol without A License which carried a penalty of up to one year in jail). However, your gun would be confiscated by the police.
In my prosecutions during the 1980’s the CPWL charge was often tacked on to a prosecution of another violent crime such as armed bank robbery or dealing drugs. A conviction would get the criminal one more year tacked on to his sentence if the jury found him guilty of the base crime and the CPWL. This was a fine way to keep criminals in jail a little longer.
Yet, there were too many cases that Birdsong witnessed where a law abiding citizen was stopped on a traffic matter and an unregistered handgun was found in the car. The citizen was then prosecuted for CPWL. Sometimes juries would not convict but other times the citizens had to spend 30 to 90 days in jail. (The judge had the discretion to send the person to jail for less than a year.)
The problem with the law is that it prevented citizens from legitimately possessing handguns for self protection – even in their own homes. It was time for the law to go.
Oh…and there is this fact! Remember that when the handgun law was passed in 1976 there had been 135 handgun murders in D.C. In 2007, there were 143 handgun murders in D.C. So far in 2008, there have already been 85 handgun murders in D.C. –where is the deterrence…? The law completely failed on this account.
It was time for it to go!