D.C. ruling, Beretta departure highlight damage to society of absurdly lax gun laws

Columnist August 2, 2014

Two recent developments in our region highlight the downside of our nation’s absurdly permissive gun laws.

In the District, a federal judge started the process of gutting a ban on carrying handguns in public adopted by the city’s duly-elected representatives.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

The District will have to make a choice, probably by October: Would you like to see people sporting pistols on their hips on downtown streets, as one might in places in Virginia? Or would you prefer to allow only “concealed carry” and thus wonder who might be hiding a revolver under a coat or in a purse? Given the pro-gun majority on the Supreme Court, it’s almost certain to be one or the other.

In Maryland, meanwhile, the Italian gun company Beretta decided to yank out its manufacturing operations in what it described as a political protest against the Free State’s gun-control laws.

After maintaining a factory for nearly 40 years in Accokeek in southern Prince George’s County, Beretta announced July 22 that it will move 160 jobs to the more firearms-friendly environs of Tennessee.

The firm’s professed reason is laughably hypocritical, because Beretta is based in a country with far stricter gun laws than Maryland or any other U.S. state.

If chief executive Ugo Beretta can’t tolerate what he has described as Maryland’s lack of “respect” and “pattern of harassment” of the company and its customers, then how can he stand to maintain his headquarters in a nation that regulates shotguns for hunting more tightly than America treats assault rifles?

Of course, Signor Beretta is much safer living in Italy. Like almost all other industrialized democracies, apart from the United States, it has far fewer guns and, what a coincidence, far less gun violence.

“He is bashing laws that are much less severe than the ones that protect him and his family,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the legal-action project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Italians have about one-seventh as many civilian firearms as Americans, after adjusting for population, according to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Medicine.

Italians also suffer one-eighth as many gun-related deaths per capita, the study said.

Jeff Reh, a member of the board of directors of Beretta USA, told me he couldn’t speak for his bosses but that he was “certain that they don’t agree with many of the laws that have been passed” in Italy.

Reh stressed that the Berettas have had their headquarters there for more than 500 years.

“In the end, that’s their home,” he said.

Fair enough. But that doesn’t excuse using economic blackmail to punish Maryland for daring to apply some common sense to curb the nation’s gun-violence epidemic.

The contrast in casualties between gun-sane Italy and gun-crazed America underlines why it’s so disappointing that the District is going to have to relent and allow handguns to be carried outside the home.

On July 26, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., a George H.W. Bush appointee, threw out the city’s prohibition on carrying handguns on public streets.

The District might appeal. But even passionate gun control advocates are skeptical that an appeal would succeed, given other court rulings in the wake of the landmark, pro-gun, Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008.

A much more likely and desirable response, under the circumstances, is a softening of the current law. A rewrite would allow handguns registered in the District to be carried outside the home but only under strictly regulated conditions.

For instance, liberal states such as Maryland, New York and New Jersey have successfully defended laws limiting the carrying of handguns to people who can justify to police that they need the weapon for self-defense.

Also, the District will want to keep the ban for sensitive, large public gatherings, like a presidential inauguration or a protest on the Mall, and when foreign dignitaries are present.

“We would like to not have handguns present for events like that,” Police Chief Cathy Lanier told me.

The city also has to decide whether handguns should be concealed or carried openly. Lanier and I lean toward keeping them out of sight.

“If a guy walks into a restaurant with a gun on his hip . . . I think that might be unsettling to a lot of people, especially in the nation’s capital,” she said.

Unlike in other civilized countries, U.S. courts have deemed that Americans can carry guns with few restrictions. Just don’t make me look at them.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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