Interview: Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke on Why the Gun Ruling Isn't So Bad

After the Supreme Court struck down Chicago's handgun ban Monday, issuing its ruling on McDonald v. Chicago, following a similar ruling in Heller v. District of Columbia in 2008, Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke says the ruling isn't so bad for gun-law reformers and that a flood of new lawsuits can be expected. The following is a lightly edited interview with Helmke conducted today, a few hours after the ruling was issued:

CG: After this ruling, what can states and cities still do to restrict handguns and try to mitigate handgun violence?

Paul Helmke: Actually it's a very narrow ruling, especially when you look at both this ruling and the Heller ruling two years ago. They both deal just with the right to have a gun in your home for self defense, and they both say, and Justice Alito from the bench today talked about [how] the Second Amendment is a right to have a gun in the home for self defense. Alito today repeated the lang that Justice Scalia used two years ago and said this right is not unlimited. In his decision they talk about [it], and they repeat the language in the Heller decision that you can restrict who gets guns, you can restrict where they take the guns, you can restrict how guns are carried, you can restrict how guns are sold, you can restrict how guns are stored, you can restrict what kind of guns there are. So by repeating the Heller language today in the McDonald decision, the fact that Alito reinforced that outside of a handgun ban, cities can do a number of things to help reduce gun violence in their communities, and the challenge is going to be, with the McDonald case, there are going to be a lot of lawsuits fighting over where to draw the line on each of those things that I just mentioned.

CG: Where do you expect those lines to be drawn? Afte this ruling, do you expect this court to rule against trigger locks and restrictions on different types of guns and things like that?

Paul Helmke: I really think that most other gun restrictions, short of a near-total handgun ban, are going to be upheld. It's pretty clear to me that when you look at, again, the two court decisions, they don't want this to go too far. They feel that you have a right to the gun in your home for self defense, and that anything beyond that, probably, I think they're going to defer to the government's interest unless somehow it just seems like it's gone way too far. Again, they didn't need to mention these restrictions in the Heller case, and they didn't need to repeat the restrictions in the McDonald case, but they did, and by diong that I think it shows that they want to find some middle ground here where cities and states can do things.

To me, the botom line is, and I think this is what [the court did in] the Heller case but reinforced today is they've taken the extremes off the table. The one extreme of handgun bans, total gun bans, that's off the table now. But they've also taken the extreme any gun, anywhere, anybody, anytime--that's off the table too, and once elected officials at the federal level, at the state level, get that part of the decisions through their head, I think we could actually see some progress. I've watched so many debates at the federal level, and at state levels, where the politician stands up says, "We can't do this, the Second Amendment gives a complete right for us to have .50-caliber sniper rifles or as many guns as we want, or any wife beaters to have guns."

The courts are saying uh-uh. You can draw lines on all these things. The Second Amendmemt doesn't go as far as that side wanted, and it also doesn't go as far to the other extreme as the handgun ban. So that puts us in the middle, and I think that's a good common-sense place to be.

CG: So are you comfortable with this ruling?

Paul Helmke: I've told people I'm not surprised at all. You know, Chicago basically lost once DC lost two years ago, and while I think the court got it wrong two years ago in terms of how they interpreted the Second Amendment, and that means they still made the same mistake, once they say it's that way, that's the way it is, and I think the crucial part of the ruling two years ago and the crucial part of the ruling today is that it really is fairly narrow. [It] deals only with guns in the home, that you've got got a right to a gun in the home for self defense, and that everything else is subject to reform and restriction.

CG: Does this ruling change anything about what the Brady Campaign does or what the next step is for you?

Paul Helmke: One thing it changes is there are gonna be a lot more lawsuits, cause it now means that every criminal defendant, in any state court [or] local court across the country, is going to be able to raise the McDonald case, raise a Second Amendment challenge to their gun [being] taken away because they beat their wife, or they got an extra penalty because they were a felon in poss of a gun. Every criminal defendant out there with a gun charge is going to raise this to try to get a better plea deal, so that's one issue.

There aren't that many gun laws out there. There are only a few at the federal level, there aren't that many states that have done a lot, but the ones that are out there are going to be challenged. So New York's registration and licensing scheme will be challenged; California's assault weapon restrictions will be challenged; the one-gun limit restrictions in the states that have those are gonna be challenged. And so you're gonna see a lot of lawsuits and some judges I think are probably going to put their own version of the Second Amendment in there and rule the wrong way, but I think eventually most of those challenges to other gun laws short of a handgun ban are gonna lose.

The Brady Campaign filed a neutral amicus brief in McDonald v. Chicago, asking the court to refute language on reasonable restrictions. In Heller, the group sided with the District of Columbia.