D.C. Government Faces a New Reality

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.

The ruling concerns a D.C. law that banned handgun ownership by residents who did not possess such weapons before the restriction was passed in 1976. The law allowed shotguns and rifles, but those weapons, like legal handguns, had to be kept in homes, unloaded, and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks.

Besides ruling that the handgun ban violates the Second Amendment, the court held that it is unconstitutional to require legal weapons to be unloaded and disabled. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, called it a "prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."

"I'm thrilled that after being involved in this case for six years, I'm finally going to be able to take the trigger lock off my shotgun and load it if I need to be able to defend myself in my own home," said Gillian St. Lawrence, 29, of Georgetown, one of the original plaintiffs who sued to overturn the gun law.

Of the original plaintiffs, the courts had ruled that only Dick A. Heller, 66, a security guard who lives on Capitol Hill, had legal standing. Outside the Supreme Court, he said, "I'm very happy that now I'm able to defend myself in my household, in my own home."

Nickles said the new rules for registering handguns will probably be similar to those in effect for rifles and shotguns, with additional restrictions. Residents generally will not be allowed to carry handguns outdoors, he said.

"There are going to have to be some special provisions about how you transport handguns to the police station for registration," he said. To own a gun, "you've got to be an adult. You've got to be fingerprinted. You've got to demonstrate some knowledge of guns and of D.C. gun laws. You cannot have been judged mentally incompetent over the last five years. You cannot have been convicted of a felony or a violent crime."

He said "there will be a lot of other things that people will think of" in the next three weeks, before the regulations are finalized.

The city will allow an amnesty period for people who have been keeping handguns illegally to properly register them, if the owners qualify, Nickles said. The police department also is setting up an information hotline. While the rules are being drafted, Lanier said, police officers who find handguns in residents' homes will "use their discretion" about whether to arrest the owners.

As the District and other jurisdictions across the nation attempt to enact gun restrictions that pass constitutional muster under yesterday's ruling, numerous lawsuits will probably result, lawyers on both sides of the case said.

"This opinion still allows common-sense gun control laws," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "While we expect there'll be a lot more court cases . . . it's clear that what the court did today, they limited the extremes. They said that you could no longer have a near-total prohibition on guns, but they also said you can have reasonable restrictions on guns."

Nickles said that one such "reasonable restriction" would be for the District to continue to require guns to be fitted with trigger locks, although they would not have to be kept unloaded.

"My view is, if you allow handgun registration and require trigger locks, that ought to satisfy the court both in terms of the individual being able to protect himself and, at the same time, provide a reasonable restriction to protect the public safety," he said.

Gura agreed that restrictions are permitted but said the city should not go too far.

"Regulations that are obviously sensible will survive," he said. "We're not going to see the end of instant background checks. We're not going to see the end of the ban on felons or lunatics having guns.

"But when the government regulates guns, it has to remember now that it is potentially stepping on an important individual right," Gura said. "And it's going to be made to respect that right."

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