The Matter of "Non-Functional" Firearms

At issue in the historiccase are the DC's tough gun laws, which effectively ban handguns and require those who own long guns to keep them unloaded.
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Gun Safety No Laughing Matter

The dust is only beginning to settle in the wake of oral arguments heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 18 in the historic case of Heller v. District of Columbia. The day featured several lively exchanges, as both the justices and the attorneys for the two sides in the case sought to divine the historical context and present-day implications of the Second Amendment.

At issue in the Heller case are the District's tough gun laws, which effectively ban handguns and require those who own long guns (i.e., shotguns and rifles) to keep them unloaded and either trigger-locked or disassembled in the home. The lead Plaintiff in the case, D.C. resident Dick Anthony Heller, has argued that these restrictions preclude his right to self-defense in the home and violate individual rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. In the view of Heller and his attorneys, a firearm that must be kept unloaded and trigger locked is "non-functional" and of no use in a home invasion scenario.

Surprisingly, during Tuesday's oral arguments, several of the justices seemed to not only openly side with Heller's argument, but to stake out a stance on the storage of firearms in the home more laissez-faire than that advocated by the standard bearer for the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

One fascinating exchange occurred between Walter E. Dellinger III, the attorney arguing the case for the District, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia. Dellinger clarified that long guns in District can be kept either disassembled or trigger locked when stored in the home, and noted that releasing a trigger lock is a simple procedure. Justice Roberts pressed -- exactly how long does it take to disable such a lock? Dellinger, who had tested a lock on a gun he owned, answered "three seconds."

That apparently didn't satisfy Justice Scalia, who had envisioned a hypothetical home invasion scenario of "somebody crawling in your bedroom window." Addressing Dellinger, Justice Scalia sarcastically stated, "You turn on the lamp next to your bed so you can -- you can turn the knob at 3-22-95." Chief Justice Roberts followed with his own quip, which elicited laughter from the crowd: "you turn on the lamp, you pick up your reading glasses..." The two justices seemed to be implying that trigger locks eliminate the possibility of a firearm being used for self-defense. More disturbingly, they seemed to suggest that keeping firearms loaded and unsecured in the home was the most prudent storage practice. Also embracing this view was Justice Samuel Alito, who stated that D.C.'s firearm storage provisions could not survive "under any standard of review."

A quick look at the NRA's Gun Safety Rules webpage reveals just how far out of the mainstream these justices are. One of the NRA's "fundamental" rules for safe gun handling is "ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use." The NRA also tells gun owners to always "store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons," noting that "dozens of gun storage devices, as well as locking devices that attach directly to the gun, are available." In a "Parents Guide to Gun Safety," the NRA also points out the potential dangers to children, stating "a parent must, in every case, assess the exposure of the firearm and absolutely ensure that it is inaccessible to a child."

Dellinger is undoubtedly aware of these dangers. His two grandchildren likely spend more time in his home than armed criminals. It is mystifying that Chief Justice Roberts, who has two young children, is not equally aware of why kids and guns are a bad mix.

The fact is that guns in the home are a far greater threat to one's family and intimates than to any imagined criminals. Living in a home where there are guns increases the risk of homicide by 40 to 170% and the risk of suicide by 90 to 460%. With its handgun ban and proactive safety and storage laws, the District of Columbia, in comparison with the 50 states, enjoys the 17th lowest accidental gun death rate and the second lowest suicide rate. Meanwhile, according to the FBI, firearms were used by private citizens in only 147 justifiable homicides in the U.S. in 2005. The total number of gun homicides that year? 12,352.

D.C.'s gun laws could live or die depending on what the Supreme Court defines as a "reasonable restriction." Given the firearm safety recommendations of the gun lobby, and the level of evidence pointing to the risks of having unsecured firearms in the home, it is disingenuous to argue that the city's trigger lock provision is unreasonable.

I would point to the words of Justice Stephen Breyer, who stated during the oral arguments that "we give...leeway to the city and States to work out what's reasonable in light of their problems." Or as he later summarized concerning the controversy over trigger locks: "Do you want thousands of judges all over the United States to be deciding that kind of question rather than the city councils and the legislatures that have decided it in the context of passing laws?"

That question can be answered faster than the few seconds it takes to remove a trigger lock.

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