Cities will pay a heavy price if handgun ban is overturned
By Shirley Franklin
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/23/08
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on whether Washington, D.C.'s decades-old handgun ban is constitutional.
It's been nearly 70 years since the high court has heard a firearms case that tests the scope of the Second Amendment. The outcome of this one, D.C. v. Heller, will have extraordinary implications - not just for the District, but for the ability of cities to respond effectively to gun violence.
If more evidence is needed that the stakes could not be higher, a steady drumbeat of headlines is supplying it. In the first few days of March alone, just before the justices heard oral argument in the case, three kids were killed and five more wounded in Chicago. And in West Palm Beach, Fla., a gunman killed an off-duty firefighter and wounded five others before turning his gun on himself.
Elected officials and law enforcement in those areas have a lot riding on the court's decision. The case stems from a lower-court ruling that D.C.'s ban violated the Constitution. Breaking with decades of Supreme Court precedent and hundreds of lower-court decisions, a federal appeals court held for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms not related to service in a "well-regulated militia."
If the justices agree with the lower court's ruling, cities and states throughout the country may face challenge after challenge to the constitutionality of firearm regulations enacted to protect the public and prosecute criminals. And city attorneys may find themselves spending as much time fighting lawsuits as they do fighting crime.
Those resource-draining challenges would come at an inconvenient time. Gun violence is a national crisis, but one that disproportionately affects those of us who live in urban areas. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 340,000 homicides were committed in large American cities between 1976 and 2005. About 64 percent of those homicides involved firearms.
Very often, it's our first responders who pay the harshest price. In the decades between 1976 and 2006, more than 2,251 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty - more them 90 percent of them by firearms.
The problems are obvious - and they do have solutions, some of which are already being implemented around the nation. A decision from on high that limited our authority to craft local solutions would be yet another tragedy. Different gun laws make sense in different areas. Community leaders are plainly in the best position to determine the policies needed to curb the crime, fear and disorder that gun violence creates in each city - not a special interest lobby and gun industry more concerned about dollars than lives.
It's the nation's mayors who get the call from police when a shooting occurs. It's the local leaders who comfort the families of gunshot victims, who walk with police and residents on the neighborhood beat, who meet with block watch groups and who grapple with the demanding budget ramifications of violent crime. For those very reasons, policies affecting guns and community safety historically have been - and should be - made at the local level.
And when communities have the authority to enact regulations that respond to local needs, they're often aggressive and successful. New York City has experienced a dramatic decline in crimes involving firearms after tailoring creative local regulation to curb gun violence. The city of Oakland, Calif., prohibits firearms dealers from selling ultra-compact (and easily concealable) handguns. Washington, D.C.'s handgun restrictions have led to one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation. And Chicago, like the District, bans the possession of handguns.
For the sake and the safety of all Americans, let's hope the Supreme Court will allow local leaders and law enforcement the tools they need to do their jobs.
> Shirley Franklin is mayor of Atlanta. Contributing to this column were: Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee; Manuel A. Diaz, mayor of Miami; Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco; Greg Nickels, mayor of Seattle; and Douglas H. Palmer, mayor of Trenton, N.J.