Guns: The Next Step

Monday, June 30, 2008

IN APPEALING to the Supreme Court to save the D.C. handgun ban, local officials rightly thought of what was best for the people of Washington, D.C. A lower court had already invalidated the ban, and there was a chance -- albeit limited -- of prevailing. Instead, the high court agreed that the ban is unconstitutional. Officials again must think of those citizens in fashioning the strongest legal protections against gun violence.

Even before the court issued its historic -- and misguided -- 5 to 4 ruling Thursday, law enforcement officials for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) were working on a worst-case assumption. A task force was formed in the attorney general's office to study the issue and to formulate new rules. Because the court's decision doesn't take effect immediately, the city has some breathing space in devising regulations that can provide for rational management of gun ownership and, equally important, withstand legal challenge. Gun rights activists say they will be closely watching to make sure the District doesn't thwart the court's intent by a layering of what they would see as onerous restrictions. The possibility of further litigation must not deter the mayor and the D.C. Council from coming up with sensible protections for a city where far too many people are killed and otherwise victimized by guns.

The city's job was made more difficult by the court's failure to provide any real clues as to what are permissible government restrictions on gun owners. As The Post's Robert Barnes observed, the court raised as many questions as it answered in terms of what can be outlawed. Working in the District's favor, though, are strong laws on the books that were seemingly untouched by the court's ruling. For example, the District's system of gun registration, which predates the 1976 ban on handguns, is among the strictest in the nation. Not only does it set requirements for who can own a gun, it also requires being fingerprinted, passing tests and completing an application certified by police. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), whose public safety committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the decision, rightly wonders whether ballistics tests or a reasonable waiting period might also be appropriate.

As city officials seek the right balance in meeting the court's order, they shouldn't also have to worry about congressional interference. Legislation already was pending on Capitol Hill to restrict the city's ability to regulate firearms, and the court's action could fuel that sorry effort. It's incumbent on leaders from both parties not to allow such interference in local democracy.

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