Giving 'Em Heller

At the Supreme Court with one of its most famous plaintiffs

WASHINGTON — "Don't say my name out loud." That's the first thing Dick Heller told me as we stood outside the Supreme Court building on the morning of June 26, waiting for the decision in a landmark Second Amendment case. Heller, who wore a Supreme Court tie and a blue baseball cap with a miniature silver pistol on it, looked like just another enthusiast as he handed out newsletters. But as he lectured me and my friends on the history of the case, we responded with rapt attention rather than casual interest. Heller, a security guard from Washington D.C., was the eponymous plaintiff in the case, District of Columbia v. Heller. The case was a challenge to the city's gun ban, the strictest in the nation, on Second Amendment grounds. Citizens were not allowed to own handguns, even to keep and use only in their own homes. It was the first time the Supreme Court had addressed the Second Amendment in almost 70 years and the first time they had directly considered whether the amendment guarantees an individual right to own a firearm. Heller, who lives in a dangerous neighborhood and wants to keep a handgun at home for self-defense, was contacted by Bob Levy, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, where I am working as an intern this summer. Levy, a self-made millionaire, was preparing to bankroll a lawsuit against the ban. Heller joined five other plaintiffs in the suit, then known as Parker v. District of Columbia. While the attorneys were primarily responsible for brilliantly shepherding the case to the Supreme Court, a vital part of the case hinged on actions Heller took on his own. On the advice of his friend and attorney Dane Van Breichenruchardt, Heller had gone to a police station to attempt to register a handgun. When the clerk refused, saying it was against the law, Heller had him write down the name of the law it broke on the denied application. The purpose of this bizarre encounter was to establish legal standing for Heller to sue by proving that he had been injured by the law. It worked: When the lawsuit, which had been dismissed by the District Court, went to the D.C. Court of Appeals, they.ruled that Heller—though not the other plaintiffs—had standing, and struck down the ban. I ended up sitting right next to Heller in one of the back rows of the Supreme Court. Groups of law school students filed in front of us to sit in their reserved seats, while Heller grumbled amiably about the large guard who blocked his view of the justices during oral arguments back in March. His was the third decision read. As Justice Scalia handed down the court’s opinion—striking down the ban and affirming a strict individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment—Heller broke out into a wide grin. During Justice Stevens’ vigorous dissent, he chuckled audibly. As we left, I had him sign my copy of the opinion, and then we parted ways. While the case sparked a flurry of lawsuits challenging other local gun laws, including one from the National Rifle Association against Chicago, perhaps the most interesting is a suit filed this Monday against the District of Columbia—again by Heller. After trying to register his handgun, Heller was told that because it can theoretically hold more than 12 rounds, his gun falls under the District’s machine gun ban. Heller is now hoping to repeat the success of his first lawsuit, forcing the District to comply with the words of the decision, which stated that “the District must permit [Heller] to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry in the home.” Though the lawyers involved in the case have received well-deserved praise and attention in the media, Heller, who has given out few interviews (perhaps because of the book he jokes about writing) was somewhat marginalized by the media in the later stages of the case. He has come back under the spotlight thanks to his new lawsuit, which demonstrates his devotion to achieving not just a symbolic victory, but the safety and security he has sought since the beginning. Furthermore, his name is likely to achieve immortality, joining William Marbury, Joseph Lochner, and Oliver Brown in the annals of American legal history. (The plaintiff in Roe v. Wade dodged notoriety by using a pseudonym). One of my favorite aspects of living in Washington and working at a think tank for the summer has been the ability to see and meet famous politicians, celebrated judges, and renowned scholars. But my most enjoyable experience so far has been meeting this ordinary person with an extraordinary story. —Daniel P. Robinson ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.