A New Gun Law

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

THERE WAS BOTH a triumphal and defeatist cast to the news conference that D.C. officials held yesterday to unveil new firearms legislation. The agreement by the District's sometimes-fractured political leadership on a course of action was worthy of celebration. But it was hard to stomach the need to promulgate rules allowing ownership of handguns -- something the city had forbidden for decades until the Supreme Court's recent decision. Nonetheless, the proposal strikes the right balance in allowing residents to exercise Second Amendment rights articulated in the court's landmark decision while aiming to keep guns out of the wrong hands and prevent their misuse.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) aptly called the Firearms Control Emergency Amendment Act of 2008 a "negative bill," made necessary by the court's unwelcome decision on June 26 to invalidate the city's 32-year-old ban on handgun ownership. The measure is the result of work by Mr. Mendelson, chairman of the public safety committee, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Likely to be enacted today by the council on an emergency basis, it would permit only handguns in homes for self-defense. Sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and short-barreled rifles would still be banned. To register handguns, residents would have to complete an application, pass a written firearms test, provide a photo and proof of good vision, and be fingerprinted -- all sensible requirements that are generally seen as being able to pass court muster.

Still, as Attorney General-designate Peter J. Nickles noted, there is little doubt there will be legal challenges, partly because the court was so opaque on what restrictions it would accept as reasonable. The threat of further litigation thankfully did not cause the city to shy away from drafting requirements on safe storage of firearms or a provision that handguns undergo ballistics testing as part of the registration process. Both measures are clear public safety measures that the government has every right to impose. Ballistics information is useful to police in solving crimes; loaded and unlocked guns pose an intolerable risk to young children and teenagers; and even the strongest of gun advocates espouse proper storage of firearms. By the same token, the city is correct to stand by its ban on automatic and most semiautomatic weapons. In our view, the court's assertion of an individual's right to ownership of a firearm for self-defense does not extend to ownership of a gun capable of firing multiple rounds in seconds and fitting the court's own definition of a dangerous weapon.

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