By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
Thirty-two years after banning most D.C. residents from possessing handguns, the District government opened its doors yesterday to applicants seeking permission to own revolvers, bowing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared the city's tough firearms restrictions unconstitutional.
With the ban lifted after a momentous, years-long legal battle that led to the landmark high court decision last month, here's how many applications the city received by day's end: one.
Bracing for a crowd at the registration office, at police headquarters on Indiana Avenue NW, officials set up a reception counter in the lobby and used portable metal railings to reserve one of the building's entrances for "gun registry applicants." Officers stood guard at the door, and a dozen reporters and TV cameras were waiting expectantly at 7 a.m., when the registration process was to begin.
But in the eight hours that the office remained open, there was no crush of people eager to avail themselves of the newly affirmed right to own a revolver in the nation's capital. Police gave out 58 registration packets to people stopping by for the materials. But only two people showed up to apply to register handguns, and one was turned away by police officials because he didn't bring his weapon with him, as the registration rules require.
"We didn't think there was going to be a big rush," Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. Still she added, "We'd always rather be overprepared than underprepared."
The would-be applicant who was turned away was Capitol Hill resident Dick A. Heller, whose lawsuit prompted the Supreme Court ruling that scuttled the city's strict firearms control laws.
Arriving at 6:30 a.m., accompanied by an adviser, Heller was met outside the building by various police officials. In an animated discussion, they explained to Heller that he needed to show authorities the handgun he wanted to register, and allow it to be test-fired, as part of the registration process.
The adviser, Dane von Breichenruchardt, president of the Bill of Rights Foundation, a public-interest group, said that Heller owns at least two handguns -- a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a .22-caliber revolver -- and that the weapons have been stored for years with a friend in Maryland.
Although officials said that gun owners in Heller's situation can bring legally owned revolvers from other jurisdictions into the District to register them, von Breichenruchardt said he had told Heller not to do so without written assurance that it was permissible.
After Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham publicly promised Heller that he would "absolutely not" get in trouble for bringing a revolver into the city, Heller said he would bring the weapon to police headquarters this morning to start the registration process.
Police Lt. Jon Shelton, head of the registration office, predicted that more people will come forward after news broadcasts show Heller going through the process. "Once someone sees Mr. Heller walk in that door with his gun and start the registration process, then walk back out with his gun, it may be a different story," he said.
Neither Heller nor his adviser were upset by the delay.
"I think what's happened here is a misunderstanding of the law," von Breichenruchardt said, "and that's perfectly understandable."
But Heller and von Breichenruchardt angrily criticized the city over other aspects of the handgun ownership and registration process, outlined in emergency legislation approved this week by the D.C. Council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
The new law includes strict storage requirements that opponents of the handgun ban say violate the Supreme Court ruling. Gun owners must keep their pistols at home, unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with trigger locks. Weapons can be loaded and used only if the owner reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger from an attacker in the home.
The city also has continued to ban most clip-loaded semiautomatic handguns -- which dominate the firearms market -- by including those weapons in its broadly written ban on machine guns, which was not at issue in the Supreme Court ruling.
Newsham said if anyone shows up to register a semiautomatic pistol that fits the city's definition of a machine gun, police will confiscate the gun but will not immediately arrest the owner. But he said police reserve the right to investigate and eventually file charges.
For Heller, Newsham said, that means his Colt .45 cannot be registered. "It appears that the city does not yet understand the decision and order of the Supreme Court," said Heller, 66, a security guard.
Von Breichenruchardt accused D.C. officials of "trying to find as many ways as they can to make the process as difficult and unattractive as they can," and he predicted that the issue of semiautomatic pistols will lead to more litigation. "Mayor Fenty promised us he would follow the letter and spirit of the law. He has done neither."
Because, under federal law, buyers can purchase handguns only in the states where they live, D.C. residents cannot legally purchase and take delivery of firearms until a licensed firearms dealer sets up shop in the District. Officials said that one dealer is in the process of reactivating his license and that others will probably obtain licenses eventually.
Eventually, it will be possible for D.C. residents to buy pistols in other states and have dealers in those states ship the guns to dealers in the District for delivery.
Officials said they expect that most of the gun owners who show up to register weapons in the weeks ahead will be people who kept revolvers in their homes illegally during the ban and who want to take advantage of a six-month amnesty period that began yesterday.
Others, such as Heller, might have purchased revolvers legally in other jurisdictions, including Maryland and Virginia, and then left the guns in the care of friends or relatives when they moved to the District. As Newsham told Heller yesterday morning, those guns can be legally transported into the District, provided that they are taken directly to D.C. police headquarters for registration.
The only application received yesterday was from a woman who brought a revolver to the registration office under the amnesty program, officials said.
After the gun was test-fired and the woman completed registration paperwork and a written test, she went home with the gun to await a decision on her application.
By law, she must keep the gun in her home, unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with a trigger lock, and she is not allowed to use it, even for self-defense, unless her application is approved. The process involves a background check for disqualifying factors such as a felony record or history of mental illness.
Von Breichenruchardt stressed that Heller did not need amnesty because he broke no laws. He called the semiautomatic handgun ban "foolishness" and said it almost certainly will be challenged in court.
"The Supreme Court has given its ruling," he said. "Mr. Fenty and the city council are not above the Constitution of the United States."
Staff writer Sindya N. Bhanoo contributed to this report.