A landmark Second Amendment case argued before the Supreme Court last week could potentially nullify a 32-year-old District law and affect gun ownership throughout the country.
District of Columbia v. Heller will determine if D.C.’s ban on handguns is an infringement on citizens’ “right to keep and bear arms.” The justices must decide if the amendment guarantees individuals the right to personally own guns or if it implies only a collective right to form state militias.
Media outlets across the country covered the proceedings, but law students from GW and other D.C. schools wanted a closer look at the most significant Second Amendment case in over 70 years. While many students were drinking to honor St. Patrick on March 17, these students camped outside the Supreme Courthouse.
Armed with lawn chairs and sleeping bags – tents were not allowed – more than 100 law junkies braved the harsh wind and freezing temperatures to stand in line for access to the court’s limited public seating. Although there were moments of tension when chanting activists arrived, the group was mostly friendly and social, “like a big party,” said GW law student Chris Davis, who was in attendance.
“Some pulled all-nighters,” Davis said. “And those were the ones that were falling asleep during the arguments in the morning, which was a fair amount of people it seemed like.”
Dick Heller, a 66-year-old security guard who filed the lawsuit against the city with five other people, was outside keeping people healthy.
“Mr. Heller himself was there, handing out cough drops to help people get through the night,” said John Sorrenti, a GW law student.
With fellow law student Treyer Mason-Gale, Sorrenti and Davis were among the last few to be admitted to the seating area. Those waiting in line who were not granted a seat in the courtroom were permitted to observe the proceedings for three minutes before being asked to leave.
“I walked up the steps to the doors of the courthouse, turned around to see the mass of suckers who didn’t get in and raised my fists in glory,” Mason-Gale said in a blog post to gwlawstudents.wordpress.com. “At this point in law school, I will take whatever accomplishments I can get.”
Based on the justices’ comments and questioning of the attorneys’ arguments, students said it was clear the court was leaning toward there being an individual right to bear arms.
“What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked during the proceeding. Justice Stephen Breyer later asked if it is “unreasonable for a city with a very high crime rate … to say no handguns here?”
These questions demonstrated the crux of the case, which focused on the balance between a complex Constitutional right and concerns for public safety.
Along with most commentators and scholars, all three students predict that the Supreme Court will overturn the ban when they issue their decision sometime this spring.
Even Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, appeared to agree that the Second Amendment does guarantee individual ownership of guns.
GW professors also said the court will likely overturn the ban. Law Professor Robert Cottrol points to the language and context of the Second Amendment to show it “clearly was meant to protect the individual rights.”
“The original idea was that (the militia) would bring their own guns,” Cottrol said. “To the 18th century mind, the idea that you couldn’t defend yourself in your own home would just be seen as nuts.”
He added it makes sense that these students would spend the night on concrete sidewalks because it is “history in the making.”
Cottrol said, “This is a case that scholars of law and political science will study and debate over for years to come.”