The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the constitutionality of a Washington, D.C., handgun ban, but top law enforcement officials locally are decidedly in favor of citizens' right to bear arms.
“The idea of banning guns is kind of like Prohibition in the 1920s,” said Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson. “The bad guys are going to get them, legally or not.”
“That horse has left the barn, and it's not going to come back,” the sheriff added.
The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case in which a Washington resident is challenging a ban on handguns in that city which has been in effect since 1975. The case has drawn national attention because if a ruling is issued upholding the ban, it could open the door to more localities adopting similar regulations.
And that is not something local law enforcement officials would like to see, since they do not believe - as do officials in the District of Columbia - that such bans on weapons deter violent crimes.
“I'm not Pollyanna enough to think that outlawing guns will stop crimes,” Atkinson said. There are laws against breaking and entering and speeding, but they don't prevent people from committing those offenses, he added.
Darryl Bottoms, the police chief in Pilot Mountain, agrees. “Your criminals are always going to have them,” he said. “It doesn't matter what kind of laws you pass.”
The upcoming ruling by the Supreme Court is also deemed as significant because the high court has never conclusively interpreted the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That amendment considers a well-regulated militia as “being necessary to the security of a free State,” and prohibits infringement of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
“I believe in the Constitution,” said Roger McCreary, Mount Airy's police chief, when asked his opinion in light of the D.C. ban.
Rather than adopting more gun-control regulations that basically only serve to handcuff those who obey the law, “I think we need to concentrate on people who use guns during the commission of crimes,” Atkinson said. “As far as the right to bear arms, I don't have a problem with decent, law-abiding citizens having firearms for sport and for defending themselves.”
McCreary pointed out that the wise use of guns is an important part of the fabric of a rural area such as Surry County where they are used for hunting and other sporting purposes. The city police chief added that he did a lot of rabbit and squirrel hunting while growing up and was taught to be responsible with firearms. Educating children about firearm safety is a key to preventing problems later, he indicated.
The sheriff said that in an era when home invasions and burglaries can happen at any time, citizens need a means of protecting themselves. Atkinson added that he would much rather have people possess guns and deal with any issues arising from their use for defense, rather than see harm caused to an innocent family unable to protect itself.
Bottoms, the Pilot Mountain police chief, said there is no way to pass enough laws to ensure that everyone will be safe. Banning guns could have the opposite effect, he said, given that criminals might be more prone to victimize a person if they think that individual is not armed.
“You take away that, what are you going to do?” he said. “Your citizens out here, they have a right to have a firearm in their house.”
No one from the Surry County District Attorney's Office responded to a request for comment about the issue.
The Washington gun ban, considered the strictest in the U.S., is being challenged before the Supreme Court by Dick Heller. Heller is a D.C. special police officer who carries a gun as part of his job as a guard at a federal facility in the nation's capital. He applied for a permit to keep a handgun in his home, which was denied by the city government.
Also among the ban's opponents is the Bush administration.
Critics of the D.C. law point out that Great Britain also bans firearms, but has one of the highest violent-crime rates in the world.