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representative in the House, the measure, which did not become law,came with a controversial amendmentthat would have repealed most of the city’s gun control regulations.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.