“It all started in 1976” the man in the red hat offered, “I said, Hey, I’m an adult, and I always wanted a Buntline Special like the one carried by Matt Dillon and Bat Masterson. So I ordered one, and the city of Washington DC banned it a few months later.” A candidate running for Missouri’s 2nd congressional district, a tea partier by the name of Ed Martin, had invited Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the landmark 2nd Amendment case Heller v DC to do a tour of St. Louis metro area gun shops and shooting ranges. I was along for the ride, taking pictures and video . . .
Dick Heller was wearing his red Charter Arms hat. Charter Arms offered a Heller v DC commemorative .38, so Dick was doing his bit to help out those who had honored him. He rotated that hat with a blue NRA cap from time to time.
Dick pointed out a pistol similar to his once-banned 9 ½” cowboy sixgun while looking over a collection at Pistols Plus in St. Charles. “I had wanted that pistol for 20 years, and now I could not keep it in my home in Washington DC.”
Heller’s fight was not a matter of pique over not being able to keep a collectable firearm. His 20 year crusade revolved around the inherent unfairness of the draconian restrictions in the nation’s capitol. “As a security officer, they gave me a gun to protect men and women who paid me to protect them. After my shift, I could not use my own gun to protect myself in my own home.”
Heller explained “I had the right to bear an arm to protect other people – people richer than I was – but I could not bear an arm to protect myself and my family and guests!” Dick holds up his palms, looking down as if reading a book “When I plainly read the 2nd amendment and we have the right to keep and bear arms, and then plainly read the 14th amendment where we are entitled to equal protection under the law, it was clear that some were enjoying the benefit of the 2nd and others were not, an absolute violation of the 14th.”
While Heller had common sense on his side, it would take more than common sense to prevail. It would take a strategy, money and tenacity. Twenty years worth of tenacity. I asked “You’ve pretty much stayed in Washington DC so you could pursue your case, right?” I asked, keying off of some statements he’d made earlier. Heller nodded “I did. I like Washington DC. My neighborhood was kind of bad years ago, but then again I can ride my bike to meet with think-tanks and supporters. I like the Metrorail. And of course, I have to be subject to the laws that I am attacking if we are to have standing.”
At any given time, at least three in our party were armed as we drove Dick and his wife Jane from one gun range to another. I mentioned that and Dick laughed. “I know – I go to lots of places and the people I am with point out how ironic it is that Dick Heller is the one who is still unarmed!”
Dick is utterly charming. One thing I noted about him is how delighted he is with everything. “What a beautiful day” he says about our weather. “LOOK at ALL those GUNS!” he exclaims at a gun shop full of saucy firearms. “This is the BEST lasagna I’ve ever had!” he gushes at a local Italian restaurant. The man is happy and is not afraid to be happy. He has dedicated his life to fighting a singular injustice. He has limited his home base to a tiny place in America hostile to his cherished belief in the right to keep and bear arms, but along the way Dick Heller appears to have picked up not one iota of bitterness.
At a Top Gun Shooting Sports, Dick Heller participates in our “Dick Heller Shot My Gun” fundraiser. For a contribution, Dick Heller will fire your weapon at a special commemorative target. The range officer will authenticate the make, serial number and the fact that Dick Heller fired it.
Dick goes one better, and puts a “D” next to his shots and signs the target. “Look at this – boy, this little .380 was a smooth shooting gun!” Dick points to a nice, tight group on the target, the only one he is particularly pleased with in an evening firing Glocks, Kahrs and my beloved Compact .40 Smith M&P.
The range has provided an H&K submachine gun for the gathered guests, and Dick shoulders it deliberately. He fires a few rounds on single shot, then finishes the rest of the magazine in nice controlled bursts.
“Where do you shoot?” I ask later “You said there are no gun shops in Washington DC, I doubt there are any ranges nearby.”
“Oh, I have to drive about 45 minutes to go shoot, I don’t think I even get to shoot once a month.” Dick replied.
Because of his chosen home, Dick has had to be a fan of firearms and not much of a participant. I sense that he’d have loved to been able to become proficient at cowboy style shooting competitions, but his life’s work has come first. Here in River City, I have a gun range not 5 miles from my South St. Louis home.
“What do you think the handgun ban has done, as it pertains to attitudes about guns, to the culture of DC?”
“I think the people of Washington DC now associate firearms with the criminal element. When I grew up, guns were a part of sports. Kids would take .22 rifles to school to participate in marksmanship competitions. Now, the ‘gun culture’ isn’t about sport shooting and personal defense, the people here only think of guns as a tool of thugs.”
At the ranges we were visiting, men, women and youths were intently mastering the basics of handling a firearm. Dick encouraged a young woman along as she fired a Ruger .22 revolver, the first time she had ever fired a weapon.
“About once a year, my family might go shooting” Dick offered. “We were not ‘gun nuts’ but we knew enough to respect them. In a city like Washington DC, there is no community where young people can learn to respect firearms and use them responsibly. The city criminals have LOTS of guns, and new generations are growing up where ONLY the criminasl have guns.”
The first time I ever shot a gun, I was probably five years old. My father had a .22 rifle, and we went into the backyard of the rural Kennett Missouri home of my grandpa. I remember him holding up the rifle and I tried to aim the thing at a tin can perched on the rim of a barrel. My strongest memory was the noise, and something hot peppering my face every time I fired. My second strongest memory was not being able to get the grin off my face.
My wife and I took Dick and His wife to dinner where Heller enjoys a local microbrew. True to his genial nature, he seems to enjoy the living hell out of it. “There were threads throughout this whole thing (the Heller v DC case) that were serendipitous.” Dick said “I met a guy who was an Olympic shooter and had just moved into Washington DC. He had a footlocker full of custom guns that fit his hand like gloves. He asked me ‘Where should I store them?’ and I said ‘Man, you got to get those things out of Dodge, you could get five years for each pistol!’”
“This guy was very smart.” Dick continued, “…and he would go on to be part of the team that carried this case forward. If I had not met him, nobody would know who the hell Dick Heller is!”
As we travel around, I am surprised that few people know who the hell Dick Heller is. Sometimes meeting a celebrity is like Karaoke. People will participate once a few other do. I would go around in a gun shop and say, “Have you ever heard of Dick Heller?”
I was expecting them to say “Yeah” or better yet “Hell Yeah” but the majority of my gun-toting compatriots looked at me like Nipper the RCA Dog. I soon changed my pitch “Have you ever heard of Heller v DC?” expecting a “Yeah or “Hell Yeah!”…
Even among gun nuts, it seems that a prophet is without honor. While plenty of people availed themselves of the opportunity to meet Dick and get their picture taken, many were just puzzled.
“Why do you think that is, Dick?” I asked. “We’ve been sparring over ‘militia right’ versus ‘individual right’ for decades, and you get that question settled. I am really stunned our fellow gun enthusiasts are not more aware of the significance of the case.”
Dick shrugged his shoulders, “Millions of gun owners aren’t registered to vote, and millions more do not vote.” Get registered and vote were items one through five on a five point list of messages he wanted gun owners to get. “I don’t know if it is apathy or what, but (NRA President) Wayne LaPierre put out that 20 million or more gun owners are not registered. A tiny fraction are politically active. It would not take much of an increase in gun owner participation to completely change the equation.” Political activism in favor of Pro Second Amendment candidates is what motivated Dick to come to St. Louis to help out Ed Martin in a race against a well-heeled GOP insider.
We wrapped up the weekend at the St. Louis Zoo. Dick’s wife Jane had been yearning to enjoy the nice weather after a dreary stretch in Washington DC. We talked and toured Big Cat Country, the Primate House and other attractions before settling in for a beer, this time an uninspiring pedestrian brew. Dick talked cheerily with us all the way to the airport. We said our good-byes to our new friends.
Dick Heller proved to be a delightful guy. Human life is precious, but some people are of such a disposition that they bring the preciousness of life into focus. Dick is the kind of person that when you learn a man or woman like him has been hurt or killed in a crime, you are heartbroken. You instantly despise the attacker and most would find justice in the murderer’s forfeited life. During a mugging or a home invasion, to think a man like Dick Heller was lost to us for want of a firearm brings the tragic conceit of liberals into sharp relief.
The most extraordinary thing about Dick Heller is his resounding ordinariness. He is intelligent, but not terribly above average. He is gregarious, but I know a dozen men who are just as merry in spirit. He daily toils in what he calls the murder capital of the nation, giving up all the things he could enjoy if he moved just a few miles away. While hardly obscure, he is not a rock-star. His singular accomplishment is lost on a wide number of the beneficiaries of his long hard slog, but he does not seem to care.
His super-power is simple determination to see through as much of his crusade to strike down the unconstitutional thorns and thistles sown by those who, on balance, are contemptuous of free men. I can think of nothing more American than that.