Heller carried a gun at work, but—because of D.C.’s then 20-year-old gun ban—had to leave it there when he returned home each day. In 2002, vonBreichenruchardt devised a plan that would lay the groundwork for a lawsuit: Heller would go through the futile gesture of applying for a gun permit as a way to document the practical impossibility of keeping a gun for home protection in the district.
Around the same time, the Cato Institute’s Robert Levy was preparing a legal attack on the D.C. law, a case he would personally finance and run with a band of fellow libertarian lawyers. They needed plaintiffs. Instead of the usual litigants that challenged gun restrictions on Second Amendment grounds—people charged with gun crimes—Levy and his co-counsel sought media-friendly, law-abiding D.C. residents to serve as the public face of their case.
On the surface, Heller seemed the perfect plaintiff to carry the legal challenge. But the lawyers worried about his zealous anti-government views and his penchant for riffing on the supposed similarities between the D.C. government and Russia. Levy was concerned that, in Doherty’s words, Heller seemed like “a clichéd vision of the sort of person obsessed with his gun rights.” And so, “Dick’s role as the named plaintiff was not what was intended,” as Levy recalled in a recent interview.
The lawyers chose another D.C. resident, Shelly Parker, as the lead plaintiff. They saw the African-American woman as ideal because she had bravely stood up to drug dealers and had had her life threatened. Heller was essentially demoted, and told to stifle his potentially problematic political statements. “I was supposed to be invisible and vanilla,” Heller told Doherty.
Four years into the litigation, Parker and four other original plaintiffs were dropped from the case because they lacked legal standing, meaning they hadn’t suffered enough of an “injury,” in technical terms, to file suit. Heller, meanwhile, still held the trump card that vonBreichenrucharft had engineered: the denied gun permit. That was enough to sue. Parker v. D.C. was renamed Heller v. D.C., with Dick Heller as the sole plaintiff.
The case still faced other hurdles. Early on, lawyers for the NRA—fearing pro-gun forces lacked enough votes to convince a Supreme Court majority that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms—tried to talk Levy out of pursuing the case. They then attempted to dissuade him from using as his lead lawyer an untested sole practitioner, Alan Gura. Doubting Heller’s prospects, the NRA filed a competing suit, Seegars v. Ashcroft, helmed by a leading Second Amendment advocate, Stephen Halbrook.
The NRA’s concerns were strategic, but Levy says now that something else was going on. “I think the real concern was that three lawyers from outside the NRA started stepping on some toes, and the NRA wasn’t appreciative,” he says.