Federal appeals court panel rules in favor of D.C. gun law

A federal appeals court panel on Tuesday upheld the District’s authority to impose a system of handgun registration and rejected a challenge to the city’s ban on semiautomatic assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition clips.

The 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District leaves in place the gun-ownership regulations passed by the D.C. Council after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2008 ended the city’s decades-old handgun ban.

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Calling the ruling “an important victory for the District of Columbia,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said it “upholds our government’s authority to pass reasonable gun laws.”

“It supports the registration requirements as well as the bans on assault weapons and large magazines — each of which are key components of the District’s battle against violent crime,” the mayor said in a statement.

The decision by appellate judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and Douglas H. Ginsburg largely affirmed a ruling by the lower U.S. District Court in a lawsuit against the city by four plaintiffs.

The appellate panel’s other member, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, said in a dissenting opinion that the city’s firearms rules violate the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs can next ask the full appeals court to hear the case and overrule the panel.

“Frankly, I’ve barely had time to read the opinion, so I don’t know where we’re headed next,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Stephen P. Halbrook, said Tuesday. He called the ruling “disappointing” and “a little perplexing.”

Although the opinion sided with the city on the issues of assault rifles and ammunition clips and ruled that the District can require handgun registration, the judges did not back every provision of the registration law.

For example, gun registrants are required to submit their firearms to police for test firing so ballistics records can be kept. They also must agree to be photographed and fingerprinted by police, pass vision and gun-knowledge tests and undergo periodic background checks to maintain their registrations.

The panel ordered the District Court to hold more hearings on those provisions and others to determine whether they are necessary for public safety. Meanwhile, the requirements will remain in effect.

Among the plaintiffs is Dick A. Heller, who originated the historic 2008 case in which the Supreme Court, in striking down the city’s handgun ban, ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own firearms. The high court also said governments can regulate gun ownership in the interest of public safety.

In enacting those regulations, Halbrook argued, the city violated a 1906 congressional act that said the city could impose only “usual and reasonable” firearms rules.

“The plaintiffs argue the D.C. gun laws are not ‘usual’ because they are not commonly found in either state or federal law and they are also unreasonable,” Henderson and Kavanaugh said in their majority opinion. They wrote, however, that “we agree with the District that it was authorized to enact the challenged gun laws.”

The judges also said the 2008 Supreme Court decision does not preclude the District from implementing registration.

“The basic requirement to register a handgun is long-standing in American law, accepted for a century in diverse states and cities and now applicable to more than one fourth of the Nation’s population,” they said.

Similarly, on assault weapons and high-capacity clips, the judges said, “We conclude the District has carried its burden of showing a substantial relationship between the prohibition of both semiautomatic rifles and magazines holding more than 10 rounds and the objective of protecting police officers and controlling crime.

“Accordingly, the bans do not violate the . . . constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”

In his dissenting opinion, Kavanaugh cited the 2008 case that struck down the District’s handgun ban, including a ban on semiautomatic pistols.

“It follows from [the Supreme Court’s] protection of semiautomatic handguns that semiautomatic rifles are also constitutionally protected and D.C.’s ban on them is unconstitutional,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“D.C.’s registration requirement, which is significantly more stringent than any other federal or state gun law in the United States, is likewise unconstitutional,” he wrote.

 
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