Posted: 5/23/2002 6:35:33 PM EDT
The New York Times
May 20, 2002
Gun Owners Take Their Concerns to Court
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
Even as a strong libertarian and political activist who had sued the state over more issues than he could remember, Ernest Hancock was never much bothered that his wife, Donna, was always told to check her gun or leave it in the car before paying her taxes at the Arizona Revenue Department.
State law allows residents to carry concealed weapons, and building operators have the right to keep them out — a violation of constitutional rights, in Mr. Hancock's opinion. But it was not enough of an inconvenience to warrant another suit, he said.
That all changed last month, after Mrs. Hancock went to the department again, only to have security guards tell her that she now had to check her gun in a storage locker at the State Capitol, half a mile away.
Not a chance, said her husband, who then tested the system for himself and, like his wife, was turned away.
Reverting to form, Mr. Hancock drew up a complaint against the state, challenging all its restrictions on gun ownership. He headed straight for State Supreme Court, where the inconvenience this week became Case No. CV-02-0161-SA, the SA standing for special action.
Mr. Hancock's suit, in which he is representing himself, is but the latest example of passionate responses to efforts by states to strike a balance between residents' rights to carry concealed weapons and new concerns over public safety since Sept. 11.
The debate is playing out on two fronts in Utah, one of 44 states that allow concealed weapons. The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is fighting Utah in court over whether guns should be carried on campus. In southern Utah, a group of judges said they would defy a new law that requires all state courthouses to provide storage lockers for guns. The judges say the new law would weaken prohibitions against carrying any weapons into a courthouse.
In Ohio, one of the six states that forbid concealed weapons, two groups are suing to have the prohibition declared unconstitutional. In New Mexico, former Mayor Jim Baca of Albuquerque has sued the state to overturn a law that lets residents carry concealed weapons.
In Michigan, the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners has sued Ferndale, contending that a new ban on carrying weapons into City Hall and other municipal offices violates a state law that prohibits guns in schools, churches and other public places with no mention of municipal buildings.
In Illinois, which bans concealed weapons, a group from Oak Brook is paying legal costs for a man with cerebral palsy who is suing Chicago, arguing that its 1983 prohibition against carrying weapons violates the Illinois and United States Constitutions and denies him the ability to protect himself.
Robert J. Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and the author of a 1995 book, "The Politics of Gun Control," said that efforts to expand the right to carry a gun had evolved from a "steady libertarian antigovernment attitude" in the 1980's and that they had been bolstered by Attorney General John Ashcroft's views that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to gun ownership.
But Professor Spitzer wondered how many additional challenges might arise now that Americans have grown more concerned about public safety.
"Pro-gun groups appealed for support on an antigovernment theme, but that theme is all but dead after Sept. 11," he said. "Polls are showing a sharp increase in America's trust of government to do the right things."
For Mr. Hancock, 44, the owner of a pizza parlor and a Libertarian candidate for Congress two years ago, the change his wife encountered at the Revenue Department convinced him that the system needed adjustment. Arguing that she could be in danger without a gun in downtown Phoenix, he said: "For my wife to have to disarm to pay my taxes, oh no, no, no, no, no, no. That game is over."
To help his case in court, he entered the Revenue Department last week with a 9-millimeter Makarov on his hip (and a flock of reporters in tow). He was denied access and told to check his gun at the Capitol. On Tuesday, he filed his suit, saying the department's action violated the Second Amendment and the Arizona Constitution.
Mr. Hancock readily concedes that he has had more success making political points through the media than the courts. He could not cite a major legal victory, or even a minor one, and his latest court papers ignored that part of Arizona's concealed-weapons law that allows operators of all buildings, public and private, to deny access to gun carriers for the sake of public safety.
But his past actions, he said, have brought about changes like correcting state accounting practices and might again this time, spurring lawmakers to standardize gun-checking procedures.
Elliott Hibbs, director of the state's Administration Department, which manages the state's public buildings, pointed out that no law requires buildings to provide storage lockers.
Those that do, Mr. Hibbs said, including the Capitol, do so as a convenience for people who feel uncomfortable leaving their guns at home or in their cars.
"And even then," he said, "our people tell them not to bring them back again."