Dig into the debate over gun rights that will be argued when the Supreme Court takes up the District of Columbia’s gun ban and you will find the tale of Adrian Plesha and the burglar.
It is not a stretch to say that Plesha’s story triggered the Supreme Court case.
On February 4, 1997, Plesha found a burglar in his Capitol Hill home near Union Station. According to Plesha, he heard the burglar upstairs, went out to his backyard, saw the man climbing out a window, and told him to freeze.
In Plesha’s version, the man climbed back in. Plesha went inside to get his nine-millimeter Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistol. He confronted the burglar on his porch.
“We were face to face,” Plesha told reporters. “I told him to freeze, and he reached for the gun. I fired in self-defense.”
Gregory Nathaniel Jones told a different story. He admitted burglarizing Plesha’s rowhouse. When he heard Plesha downstairs, Jones tried to climb out the back window but saw Plesha aiming a pistol at him from the ground. He climbed back in and dropped out a front window and ran to the sidewalk.
As he fled, Jones said, Plesha shot him three times in the back. He ran another block and collapsed. He spent almost a month in the hospital.
Police investigators checked Jones’s jacket and found he was shot in the back. Adrian Plesha was arrested for carrying a pistol, which was illegal in the District. He pleaded guilty. Plesha got 18 months’ probation and 120 hours of community service. Jones got probation.
Dick Anthony Heller read about Adrian Plesha and, as Heller puts it, “went ballistic.” Plesha’s arrest on the gun charge offended Heller’s sense of justice and freedom—and, he believes, violated Plesha’s right to bear arms.
Heller, who lived on the other side of Capitol Hill, attempted to set up a defense fund for Plesha. He asked the National Rifle Association to join him in trying to overturn DC’s gun ban. The NRA declined. Heller then began looking for allies to overturn the law. In 2002 Heller helped DC native Robert Levy and his team of lawyers build a case against the DC gun ban.
To Heller, the five other DC residents who joined the case, Vice President Dick Cheney, 55 senators, 250 representatives, 31 states, and the NRA, Plesha should have been able to have a pistol because the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms.
The District of Columbia, a host of medical and children’s groups, five states, and the solicitor general of the United States say that states have the right to regulate certain guns and decide who can carry them and where. They suggest that arming DC residents might increase gun violence.
Plesha’s shooting of Jones is what the DC Council was trying to stop in 1976 when it passed a stringent gun law. Responding to polls that showed three out of four residents favored a handgun ban, DC’s first elected council voted 12–1 to make it illegal for all but police officers to own handguns.
In those days, the climate in the District and on Capitol Hill trended toward controlling access to and ownership of guns. Congress had passed the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which barred felons from owning guns. DC already had been nicknamed Dodge City because of its high crime rate.
Liberal business and political titans like John Hechinger and Walter Fauntroy lobbied for a near-total gun ban. A council composed of Marion Barry, Polly Shackleton, John Wilson, and other civil-rights veterans agreed. But they had no illusions.
“What we are doing today will not take one gun out of the hands of one criminal,” Barry said.
How right he was. Despite the fact that DC is home to 40 law-enforcement agencies, the illegal gun economy operates like a daily bazaar. Criminals import guns primarily from Maryland and Virginia.
People who work in downtown DC or live west of Rock Creek Park exist in a world mostly without guns. But residents of tough neighborhoods on the city’s east side hear gunshots as often as the chirping of birds. All but a few gun murders last year took place east of Rock Creek Park.
In 2006, police recovered 2,600 guns. Since 2000, more than 1,200 people have been killed with guns; 70 were children.
It is quite possible that on the morning of March 18, when lawyers present their arguments to the justices of the Supreme Court, someone will be gunned down within ten blocks.
Bills to overturn DC’s gun ban have been introduced in Congress over the years, but none was successful. Then in 2002, Robert Levy, a District native, joined lawyers connected with the libertarian Cato Institute to launch a legal attack on the 1976 law.
Last March the US Court of Appeals ruled 2–1 for Levy and his team. The court agreed that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to have handguns in their homes. It also struck down DC’s requirement that long guns had to be disassembled or fixed with trigger locks.
“We’re not objecting to carry laws outside the home,” Levy says.
Mayor Adrian Fenty directed city lawyers to apply for Supreme Court review. The high court agreed November 20 to review the case, which sets up the first major review of the Second Amendment in 70 years. The justices are scheduled to hear arguments on March 18.
To put the issues into human terms, we present the stories of people directly involved in the case and people who could be affected by the outcome.
Gillian St. Lawrence: Ready to unlock the trigger
Sitting in her Georgetown living room with its Tiffany-blue walls, Gillian St. Lawrence could be a cover girl for Town & Country magazine—until she brings out a shotgun. With the black Mossberg Maverick 12-gauge pump-action on her lap, she looks like a model for the NRA.
“I lived in the South for many years, where guns are part of everyday life,” she says. She found out about DC’s strict gun-control laws from an NRA official who spoke to her Georgetown University government class. “I was shocked,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine you couldn’t defend yourself in your own home.”
In 2000 St. Lawrence started the process of registering a shotgun. It took two years before she completed background checks, filled out police-department paperwork, bought the shotgun, and fitted it with the blue plastic device that disables it until it’s unlocked.
“It would be nice to have a handgun,” she says. “It would be easier to use to defend yourself.”
St. Lawrence, 29, moved here when her father, Colonel Jeffrey Elting, was assigned to be one of President Bill Clinton’s doctors. She went to high school in Bethesda and Frederick. She met her husband, Paul, at Georgetown. He’s a lawyer; she runs a real-estate-investment firm from their home.
St. Lawrence is a libertarian. She worked for the Federalist Society, dedicated to “individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law.” At a 2002 conference of the Institute for Justice, she met people who knew Bob Levy, architect of the challenge to DC’s gun laws. He asked her to become one of the plaintiffs.
“DC’s gun law violates the Constitution,” she says. “If you can have a basic right under the Second Amendment taken away, what’s next?”
St. Lawrence adds, “People break into houses around here all the time.” She alone is licensed to use the shotgun—one person per firearm under DC law.
“It’s Paul’s job to call the police,” she says. “It’s my job to use it.”
If she can unlock the trigger in time.
Shanda Smith: “I buried two kids”
Shanda Smith offers a streetwise argument against loosening the District’s gun-control laws: “I have two teenage sons,” she says. “Why would I want a gun in the house?”
But what if legalized guns had to remain in people’s homes?
“They’re going to wind up on the street,” she says. “If residents of Maryland and Virginia can’t hold onto their guns, and these weapons wind up on the streets of our city, what makes you think DC residents will do any better?
“If the Supreme Court lifts the gun ban, you are going to have a serious war,” she says. “Everybody will think they can defend themselves. There will be more shootings, more killings.”
Smith, who works for the District’s disability-services agency, speaks from experience. In 1993 her son Rodney was home on his first holiday from college. He had graduated from Anacostia High and gone to the University of Kansas on a football scholarship. He was studying engineering. On Christmas Eve he was driving on Martin Luther King Avenue with his 14-year-old sister, Volante.
Shanda Smith was a few blocks away when she heard shots, then sirens. “Couldn’t be my kids,” she thought. It was. In what police believe was a case of mistaken identity, two men had shot into the car and killed both.
Smith has joined other parents of children killed by guns to press for better law enforcement. “I’m dead set against allowing more guns in my neighborhood,” she says. “If you are not in law enforcement, you don’t need a gun.
“If I wanted a gun, I could have moved to Maryland or Virginia a long time ago,” she says. “But I don’t. I’m the one who buried two kids.”