Gura also fell short in a challenge to a Yolo County, California, law forcing applicants wishing to carry concealed weapons in public to prove they had been victims of credible threats of violence. A federal district judge in Sacramento hearing ruled in the county's favor on summary judgment in May 2011. (Gura has also appealed that decision.)
An effort to challenge a D.C. law banning violent criminals from owning firearms failed as well. The D.C. Circuit affirmed a lower court's ruling against Gura's client in that case, a Vietnam veteran convicted of a misdemeanor assault 44 years ago, on January 15. Gura has told multiple media outlets that he will continue to press the case, either by appealing to the Supreme Court or applying for an en banc rehearing.
"It's silly to suggest that Congress intended to prohibit someone convicted of common-law misdemeanor from owning firearms," Gura told Bloomberg. "There's no way [my client] in the same category as serious felons."
Path to Gun Rights Prominence
Gura has identified himself in multiple interviews as both a libertarian and gun owner. He told Washington Jewish Week in 2008 that he was driven by a desire to protect his wife and infant son and purchased his first gun, in part, after watching the 1992 Los Angeles riots explode on television. Born in Israel and raised in Los Angeles, he graduated from Cornell University in 1992 and Georgetown University Law Center in 1995, then clerked for U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle in North Carolina's Eastern District before returning to California for a two-year stint as a deputy attorney general. From there, he returned to Washington, D.C., and joined Sidley from 1998 to 2000. He left private practice to serve as counsel to the U.S. Senate judiciary committee's subcommittee on criminal justice oversight from 2000 to 2001.
Gura's path to gun rights prominence began more than a decade ago when the Fifth Circuit ruled in United States v. Emerson that the Second Amendment afforded individuals a right to bear arms. Clark Neily, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice and Gura's cocounsel on Heller, recalls having drinks with a colleague shortly after that 2001 ruling, the first such appellate decision. "We knew the issue would go to the Supreme Court soon, either as a criminal case or a public interest case, and we obviously felt that the latter would be better," Neily says.
Neily and Cato's Levy began recruiting clients the following yearand looking for an attorney to serve as lead counsel. (Levy doesn't practice law and Neily had too many other cases.) Recalling Gura from his days as an Institute for Justice intern, Neily recommended him to Levy, who says he hired Gura because his rates were reasonable and he had true passion for the issue.
Gura quickly immersed himself in Second Amendment issues. Though he had never argued before the Supreme Court, Levy stuck with him as the Heller case proceeded. "Towards the end, when we got to the Supreme Court, there were all sorts of suggestions that we should switch to more experienced advocates like Ted Olson or Ken Starr," Levy says, referring to two former U.S. solicitors general. "Alan knew the subject matter inside out. Plus, our arrangement was that if he'd work for submarket wages, it would be his case no matter what. He did a superb job."
Neily concurs, saying Gura was ready for anything the justices might ask. "That's the hallmark of a capable litigator. We had done half-a-dozen moot courts in preparation for the oral argument, and I can't remember any setting where he got a question he wasn't prepared for."
Drawing Fire from His Usual Allies
Gura's current docket represents the final phase of a three-step plan that began with establishing via Heller that the Second Amendment affords an individual the right to bear arms, according to Levy. The second step involved ensuring that the right to bear arms applies to the states, which was achieved with the McDonald decision. The final, and most drawn-out, step is geared toward defining the scope of that right. "Everyone understands it isn't absolute and that there should be some restrictions," Levy says.
Maybe not everyone.
Gura has said he is hardly a gun rights absolutist and has expressed support for banning machine guns, preventing felons from acquiring weapons, and allowing instant background checks for prospective gun buyers. Those positions have put him at odds with some of his usual allies. During the Heller oral arguments, he said there was no question that governments could ban certain types of firearms and appeared to endorse not just background checks, but also laws requiring gun owners to store their arms in a safe.
"I received a very negative reaction from the real far-out, antigun control crazies, who were really angry with me," author Adam Winkler quotes Gura as saying in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. In the book, Gura recalled being compared to Osama bin Laden and Benedict Arnold, and drawing the ire of both the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association. "These people are crazy," Gura told Winkler. "I could have [made an absolutist argument before the Court]. And that would have probably made me very popular in some cabin somewhere out there in the woods. Of course I would have lost 9 to 0."
The tension between Gura and the NRA is well documented. He clashed openly with the group during the Heller litigation, accusing it of trying to derail the case out of fear that the Court would deliver an unfavorable decision. Gura also felt the NRA tried to hijack McDonald. He was especially angry when the Supreme Court took some of his allotted time and gave it to the NRA, represented by thenKing & Spalding appellate partner Paul Clement.
"They're not bringing anything substantive to the argument," he told The Washington Post in 2010. "The NRA is principally interested in taking credit and fund-raising." (In the same Post article, Clement justified his client's involvement by arguing that Gura was seeking to overturn several precedents in pressing the Supreme Court to rely on the Fourteenth Amendment's "privileges or immunities" clause to find that the Second Amendment applies to states. The NRA's argument that applying the Second Amendment to the states via the 14th Amendment's more commonly used "due process" deserved some of the oral argument time allotted to Gura, Clement said. In the end, the privileges-or-immunities argument only swayed one justice, Clarence Thomas.)
Adversaries Remain Unpersuaded
More recently, Gura criticized the NRA's response to the Newtown massacre, specifically taking the group's executive director, Wayne LaPierre, to task during his January 9 Cato Institute appearance.
"The NRA chose to address its hardest-core members," Gura said. "They spoke to their mailing list rather than the broad national audience that tuned into that press conference, and that was a fantastic and stupefying mistake." He added, "The NRA passed up the chance to build support for its views, and it did a lot of damage to itself and the cause it purports to advance." Gura also found fault with LaPierre's suggestion that armed guards be placed in every school in the country. "This idea of turning schools into security zones or armed camps is unhealthy," he said. Gura even ridiculed LaPierre for using dated pop-culture references and flatly stated there was no evidence that violent video games and movies lead to violence.
At the same time, Gura tried to find a middle ground in the debate, saying that "antigun rights people, for lack of a better term, do need to come to terms with the fact that gun ownership and gun rights are a feature of American culture," while "people who are pro gun rights probably need to stop acting like the other sides' caricatures of what they are."