Plaintiff in handgun case is suing D.C. for right carry firearms in public

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

He was at the heart of the landmark Supreme Court case that took down the District's handgun ban. But before arriving at the range, he warns in a text message: "You will find I'm not the best shot."

Once he fires a few rounds, however, it's clear that Tom G. Palmer is no novice, either. He lands a couple right in the torso of his human-shaped target. Then he aims at the target's head, misses once by a few inches, then hits twice.

But what good is such a skill, Palmer asks, if you're not free to protect yourself on the streets of your own city?

As one of the plaintiffs who sued the District for the right to keep handguns in the home, Palmer has one notch on his belt. Now he's suing the city again, this time for the right to carry firearms in public.

Palmer, a 53-year-old fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, says he thinks he has the Constitution on his side.

The Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to "keep and bear arms," and "bear," he says, "means to carry." On the street in his Kalorama neighborhood. To the grocery store, the mall, the movies. But not everywhere: "There are all kinds of reasonable restrictions that can be established," he says. "But a blanket ban on carrying them does not seem to sit well with the Constitution itself."

In such a controversial case, there's the legalese and the parsing of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' intent. Then there's the court of public opinion. The Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash., nonprofit agency that is paying for the challenge, knows this. So does its attorney, Alan Gura, who became the star of the gun rights movement when he won the case overturning the D.C. handgun ban in 2008.

So they went about choosing the plaintiffs for the next D.C. gun case carefully. Black, white, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, libertarian -- together they represent what Gura calls "everyday Americans," "a diverse group of good people from all corners of our society."

So the group that could make it legal to carry a loaded firearm through the streets of the nation's capital includes a self-employed tax accountant from American University Park, a communications lawyer from Adams Morgan, and a law student who lives in Nashville and was arrested for driving through the District with a gun in his car.

And then there's Palmer, who says carrying a gun saved his life.

It was 1982, dusk on a summer night near San Jose, when a band of thugs yelled homophobic slurs at Palmer and a colleague.

"We were what they perceived as a couple of ******s, which was the term they used, walking through their neighborhood," he said. "And it would have been one of those modestly ironic moments if my colleague might have been murdered in a gay bashing, when he was straight."

The threats were vivid and believable: "We're going to kill you. They'll never find your body."

Palmer told his colleague to run. The thugs chased Palmer, who stopped under a streetlight and pulled out his gun.

"I did not say anything witty or clever," he recalls. "In the movies, they say something very clever. I just said, 'If you come closer, I will kill you.' Very blunt. And they stopped."

He is convinced that if he hadn't had a gun he would be dead. Even though the legal weapon was not fired, "it did the job it was intended to do. It evened up the odds from a gang of young men who thought it would be really fun to beat to death two guys walking down the street."

He offers this as evidence that guns save lives and make society safer. Read more:

I generally think lawsuits should be avoided at all cost, but in this case, I say go for it.

I do own a gun-but I'm not an expert by any means.I'm a radical second amendment guy, though. I support that right-strongly.

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