D.C. Government Faces a New Reality

While the policies are being revised, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said, officers who find handguns in residents' homes will
While the policies are being revised, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said, officers who find handguns in residents' homes will "use their discretion" about whether to arrest the owners. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Duggan and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 27, 2008

Thirty-two years after enacting the nation's toughest restrictions on firearms ownership, the D.C. government suddenly faces a new reality, forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to draft regulations that will permit city residents to keep weapons, including handguns, readily available in their homes.

"I am disappointed in the court's ruling and believe that more handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said yesterday after the court ruled, 5 to 4, that the D.C. handgun ban violates the Constitution.

The majority opinion in the landmark Second Amendment case also said governments are free to impose reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, and D.C. officials pledged to do so.

"We're going to craft comprehensive legislation," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said at a news conference with Fenty, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, interim D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles and other council members.

"We're going to have the strictest handgun laws the Constitution allows," Gray said.

Officials said the District's handgun ban, as well as certain restrictions on rifle and shotgun possession that were also ruled unconstitutional, will remain in effect for at least three weeks, until a lower court formally issues an injunction based on yesterday's ruling. In the meantime, Fenty said, the D.C. police will draft new regulations on firearms ownership in keeping with the Supreme Court decision.

The District has several other laws about gun possession, and the Fenty administration began reviewing its options while awaiting the court's decision.

In a move that could rile supporters of yesterday's ruling, Nickles said the District will continue to enforce a separate decades-old D.C. ban on the possession of most clip-loaded semiautomatic handguns, which are popular with gun enthusiasts.

That regulation, which outlaws machine guns and was not part of the Supreme Court case, defines a machine gun in broad terms, encompassing semiautomatic weapons that can shoot, or be converted to shoot, more than 12 rounds without reloading, officials said. Nickles said that law remains on the books and will be enforced.

"You cannot go out today, if you have a handgun, and carry it around," Nickles said. "This is not open season with handguns. We are going to strictly regulate the registration of handguns. And there will be no authorization of automatics or semiautomatics."

Lawyer Alan Gura, who successfully argued against the handgun ban before the Supreme Court, said the law on semiautomatic firearms could lead to more litigation. "Certainly the D.C. ban on semiautomatic weapons is troubling," he said. "It's something I hope the city council takes a look at before another court has to intervene."

Like Fenty, council members voiced anger and disappointment over the Supreme Court opinion. "This sends the wrong message and will create more opportunity for thefts of legal handguns that can ultimately be used in the commission of crimes," said Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was a member of the council when the ban was passed three decades ago.

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