A native of Washington, D.C., Robert Levy now divides his time between homes in Asheville and Florida. But the 66-year-old is far from retired. A self-made multimillionaire who created and later sold CDA Investment Technologies, Levy has spent the second half of his life as a lawyer, author and senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.
A passionate advocate of constitutional freedom, he has a new book out with co-author William Mellor: The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom (Sentinel HC, 2008). But Levy’s real claim to fame these days is as co-counsel and financial underwriter for District of Columbia v. Heller, a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that may just settle once and for all the dispute concerning the intent of the Second Amendment.
“I helped bring this case to court on behalf of six Washington, D.C., residents who want to keep functional firearms in their homes to defend themselves and their families should the need arise,” he says. “But Washington’s law bans all handguns not registered before 1976 and requires that lawfully owned shotguns and rifles in the home be kept unloaded and either disassembled or bound by a trigger lock at all times. There is no exception for self-defense. Washington, often known as the ‘murder capital of the nation,’ cannot defend its citizens and will not allow them to defend themselves.”
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in landmark case on March 18, and a ruling is expected later this year. It has such far-reaching implications that even the National Rifle Association originally opposed the case, fearing an adverse ruling. But now that there’s a more conservative court, the NRA is on board. And Levy maintains that the time has never been better to settle the Second Amendment’s intent.
Mountain Xpress: How did you decide to take on this landmark case?
Robert Levy: The situation arose in Washington, D.C., that made the timing for a lawsuit particularly attractive. The variables were, first, the worst gun-ban laws in the nation. Second, the highest rate of violent crime in the nation. Third, an outpouring of scholarship from liberals—which was unusual—that said the Second Amendment secured an individual right. Fourth, there was the support of the Justice Department: For the first time, the federal government went on record saying the Second Amendment secured an individual right. And fifth, a 2001 appellate decision down in Texas in the Fifth Judicial Circuit —the first federal appellate court to declare the Second Amendment secured an individual right. So put all those things together [and] the timing was just right for a Second Amendment suit. A friend of mine—an attorney in Washington, D.C., Clark Neily III—approached me, and he and I got together and hired a third attorney … and decided to challenge the D.C. gun ban on Second Amendment grounds.
In its essence, what’s this case all about?
This case is all about self-defense. It’s about the right of ordinary, peaceable, responsible citizens who live in high-risk areas—who live in fear for their safety. It’s about their right to defend themselves with suitable firearms.
You actually funded the suit as it has wended its way through the system to the U.S. Supreme Court?
That’s right, though in effect all three attorneys have funded it by working pro bono. But in terms of out-of-pocket expenses, it’s come out of my pocket.
Just out of curiosity, just how much money would that be?
I really don’t want to say. However, if we win the suit then I’m sure that information will become part of the public record, because there will undoubtedly be a motion to recover fees. Let’s just say it’s a substantial sum of money.
Ironically, you don’t even own a gun and never have. Why is that?
I live in a gated community both in Naples, Fla., and Asheville, so I don’t personally feel threatened. Maybe if I still lived in downtown Washington, D.C., I would feel threatened. For me, it’s not all about guns. It’s about the constitutional right to have one if you feel you need one for self-defense.
Other than potentially settling the basic Second Amendment argument, what are the suit’s potential ramifications?
The immediate effects are the D.C. ban [could] be overturned, and the city would have to enact a different set of rules. To the extent those rules are different will depend in part on how narrowly or broadly the Supreme Court writes its opinion.
The longer-term effect will be twofold: First, a determination whether the Second Amendment applies to states. D.C. is not a state, so even if we win in D.C., that will not resolve an issue which is presently unresolved: whether the Second Amendment extends to state governance. So that will have to be a claim that is tested in later litigation. The second area that’s going to have to be fleshed out is exactly what kinds of regulations will be permissible even if the court determines there is an individual right secured by the Second Amendment. So the court will have to put some flesh on that bare-bones skeleton. Everyone acknowledges that the Second Amendment, even if it does secure an individual right, is not absolute. Some people and some weapons can be regulated. We don’t know yet where those lines are drawn.
So there are some gun laws you could support?
It’s less a matter which laws I support than it is what framework I think ought to be put in place to determine what law is permissible. The courts should strictly scrutinize any government regulation of firearms. … If a regulation compromises our Second Amendment rights more than is required to allow for public-safety implications, then the regulation should not be upheld.
The current court skews conservative, which would seem to favor you. But what if you fail?
If the ruling is adverse, then probably the game’s over, in terms of federal law. So I think the battleground will shift to the states. The problem hasn’t been so much with state laws but city laws, where the state has delegated power to various municipalities like Chicago and New York that have passed draconian gun bans. So that’s where the battleground will shift if the Supreme Court rules the wrong way.