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My Father, a Judge, Said a Gun Control Case Was One of His Hardest. Now I See Why.

My Father, a Judge, Said a Gun Control Case Was One of His Hardest. Now I See Why.

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.WASHINGTON — Though I’ve been lucky to have been insulated from gun violence most of my life, it was at the core of the identity of my hometown, Washington, D.C.According to a study by the Pew Research Center,…


Times Insiderdelivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

WASHINGTON — Though I’ve been lucky to have been insulated from gun violence most of my life, it was at the core of the identity of my hometown, Washington, D.C.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Washington recorded more killings in a year than any other American city eight times between 1985 and 2012, earning the nickname “murder capital.” The city’s homicide rate peaked in 1991 when there were 482 killings, or about 80 for every 100,000 people.

I was aware of the arguments for and against regulating firearms partly because my father was a federal judge who handled one of the seminal cases in the city’s fight over gun rights. In 2003, Washington was sued in response to a local law, then one of the strictest in the nation, that prohibited residents from owning handguns. The law required all firearms, including rifles and shotguns, to be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.” However, the law excluded weapons registered before 1975 and those possessed by active and retired law enforcement officers.

My father, Ricardo M. Urbina, was assigned to the case, District of Columbia v. Heller, and he ruled in favor of the city.

The verdict was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which, in a5-4 decision, reversed his ruling, concluding that the Second Amendment protects a person’s right to possess a firearm for purposes outside of military service or law enforcement, such as self-defense in one’s home.

The justices ruled that the city’s handgun ban, and specifically the requirement that lawfully owned rifles and shotguns be kept unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock, violated this guarantee. The ruling also stated that the right to bear arms was not unlimited, and that guns and gun ownership could continue to be regulated.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruling in Heller was used to overturn a subsequent city law that tightly limited the kinds of bullets city residents could own. In response, the city changed the law to prohibit possession of ammunition by anyone who did not have a gun license.

Growing up, I didn’t talk much at home about the cases handled by my father, who is now retired. After all, judges are generally a tight-lipped bunch, and I was also a child with my head elsewhere. By the time he ruled in the Heller case, I had been a reporter at The New York Times for seven years. But I do recall him citing the case as one of his toughest to parse.

At the time, I was the Mid-Atlantic correspondent for The Times’s National Desk, which meant I was responsible for all news in seven states and in Washington. For obvious reasons, I didn’t cover the Heller decision, but during my stint in that job, there was no shortage of shootings that I did cover, including the Amish schoolhouse shooting in 2006, which left five children dead, and the Virginia Tech massacre the following year in which d 32 people were killed, many of them college students.

I also covered the debate around guns as it played out locally, where the topic had a distinct resonance. Washington is a fairly liberal city, and its residents have long favored gun control. The city also has a strong presence of conservative lawmakers from elsewhere in the country, who move to the area when they become members of Congress. Because it’s a federal jurisdiction and not part of any state, the city has distinctly limited sovereignty over its own affairs. There have been tussles between Congress and the city for decades over “home rule,” a notion that pivoted specifically on the city’s gun control laws.

Beginning with its efforts to block a handgun ban passed overwhelmingly in 1975 by the City Council, Congress has made no fewer than five attempts over the past four decades to overturn stringent gun laws in Washington. In 2009, when the Senate approved a bill to provide the nation’s capital with a voting representative in the House, the measure, which did not become law,came with a controversial amendmentthat would have repealed most of the city’s gun control regulations.

Washington’s history of gun violence has contributed to local residents’ push for more controls. The city’s outlook was also affected by events in October 2002, when a sniper team terrorized local residents. John Allen Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 at the time, shot and killed 10 people and critically injured three others during a shooting spree that lasted more than three weeks. The duo evaded the police and the F.B.I., who were especially frustrated because they repeatedly found shell casings at the shooting scenes but had no way to trace them to the weapons that had been used. They also had no way to track down potential suspects because the federal ballistics database includes casing information only for guns that have been used in previous crimes.

I covered Mr. Muhammad’strial in Marylandin 2006 as well as hissubsequent executionin Virginia three years later. In the wake of these events, many gun control advocates cited the sniper killings as a catalyzing moment in their sense of urgency about the need for better tracking of ammunition. They pushed for federally requiring microstamping, serializing bullets and creating a national database that would record the ballistics signature of every gun sold in the United States, not just those had been used in earlier crimes. Microstamping is technology that imprints a bullet’s casing with a microscopic array of characters that can be used to identify the firearm, similar to a license plate number.

Most of these efforts to regulate guns and ammunition have fallen flat. And over the years, as I have studied why, I also have begun to understand why my father has referred to the Heller verdict as one of his toughest.

Over the next several months, The New York Times will publish a number of my stories that explore the regulation and commerce of ammunition, a mix that includes topics like how law enforcement uses shell casings to solve crimes, why millions of Americans make or reload their ammunition at home, and how hunters, concerned about poisoning scavengers, are leading the effort to shift away from non-lead bullets. We began this week with a look at California and its position on guns and ammunition, and how the state has emerged as the battleground for this conversation and debate.

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