District Gun Bill Goes to Council
Officials Anticipate More Legal Action On Weapon Types

By Robert E. Pierre and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Within weeks, District residents could legally keep handguns in their homes under emergency legislation that goes to the D.C. Council today, as officials try to comply with the Supreme Court ruling rejecting the city's handgun ban.

But District officials said yesterday that they are braced for the possibility of more legal wrangling as they try to respect the high court while maintaining the strictest controls possible.

Residents could begin applying this week for handgun permits in a process that requires a written examination, proof of residency, good vision and ballistic testing. Applicants also would have to pay a fee and agree to fingerprinting and criminal background checks.

The legislation does not lift restrictions on semiautomatic handguns, a move that will probably land the District back in court, according to the lawyer who successfully challenged the gun ban.

Announcing the regulations yesterday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was clear about what might be ahead.

"We think we have struck the delicate legal balance," he said during a news conference. "While we will have lawsuits, we think we stand on solid legal ground."

Alongside Fenty (D) were Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and several council members, including Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

The legislation was originally crafted by Mendelson, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary and who worked with Nickles in recent days to revise and strengthen the bill.

The District's ban was the nation's toughest, and city officials fought vigorously to maintain it, but gun violence -- and deaths -- persisted throughout the legislation's 32-year existence.

Provisions for gun ownership in the city had been highly anticipated since the court's 5 to 4 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller declared that individuals have a right to have guns in their homes for self-defense. Although some residents said they worry that more killings would result because of the ruling, others said they intended to purchase or register a gun as soon as possible.

Alan Gura, the lead attorney for residents who challenged the ban, said the proposed rules do not comply with the Supreme Court's decision because they do not allow for semiautomatic handguns.

"The semiautomatic ban is clearly unconstitutional," Gura said. "The overwhelming majority of handguns people use in the United States are semiautomatic."

The rules announced yesterday bring the District closer to gun restrictions in cities such as Chicago, said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

His staff huddled with the District on the regulations, but Helmke said it is uncertain which parts would withstand constitutional muster. Firearms may be banned, the majority opinion in the Heller case maintained, only if the weapons are "unusual and dangerous."

"It's not clear what that means," Helmke said. "This is the problem with getting the courts involved. These are usually issues that are determined by elected officials."

Gun-rights advocates said after the ruling that they would immediately target other jurisdictions with similar laws, and those favoring gun control were encouraged by the acknowledgment that reasonable restrictions on guns are allowed.

The District is trying to determine where the line is, and it is trying to push it as far as it can go.

The council had recently given unanimous preliminary approval to legislation that would allow gun owners to keep weapons in their homes without trigger locks as long as they were for "immediate self-defense." But yesterday, several council members said they agreed with tougher language that requires weapons to be unloaded, disassembled or trigger locked, except when there is a "threat of immediate harm to a person" in the home.

Nickles said residents could neither keep their guns loaded in anticipation of a problem nor search for an intruder on their property. The porch is off-limits, he said, as well as the yard and any outbuildings.

"We do not want people running around with loaded guns outside," Nickles said.

Gray and other council members said they were bracing for another fight in court. "We're trying to figure out how close we can get to where we were before," Gray said. "This will be a legal sparring round for a few years."

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said in a statement that the emergency legislation is a start. "But, because we really haven' t changed the storage rule from the prior unconstitutional law and because of other features, I do agree that this is a lawsuit waiting to happen," she said. "But we'll be prepared."

Nickles was more direct: "We figured it out until the court tells us we haven't." The new legislation would be in effect for 90 days, and council members expect to start work on permanent legislation in mid-September, Gray said.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the department would begin processing applications upon passage of the legislation. While a permanent law is being drawn up, residents could register one gun each.

Those purchasing a handgun in another jurisdiction must take a form to a licensed dealer, who would then transport the weapon to the District. Those who already own a handgun have a six-month amnesty period to register their weapons, assuming that they are not automatic or semiautomatic pistols. Those are still illegal.

Guns must be submitted to the Firearms Registration Section for ballistic testing. Once complete, the applicant could take the gun home. Lanier said the entire process could take "weeks or months." Fenty said that guns used in the commission of a crime would not be subject to the amnesty provision.

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company