By Del Quentin Wilber and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The man who successfully challenged the D.C. handgun ban before the U.S. Supreme Court filed a second federal lawsuit yesterday, alleging that the District's new gun-registration system is burdensome and continues to unlawfully outlaw most semiautomatic pistols.
Dick A. Heller, a 66-year-old security guard who lives on Capitol Hill, and two other plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit that the D.C. government violated the letter and the spirit of the landmark Supreme Court decision, issued June 26, that struck down the District's decades-old handgun ban.
The 5 to 4 ruling concluded that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to possess guns for self-defense but said governments may impose reasonable restrictions. The lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S District Court says the District's restrictions go too far.
The suit urges U.S. District Judge Richard M. Urbina to toss most of the District's new requirements, which include ballistics tests of registered handguns. It also asks him to eliminate restrictions on semiautomatic handguns and to order D.C. police to approve the handgun applications of the three plaintiffs.
The suit could take months, if not years, to resolve. Until then, the new regulations remain in place. The District's top litigator said yesterday that he expects "a long fight" over the rules.
The District's handgun registration is limited almost entirely to revolvers; a previous D.C. law bans machine guns and includes a broad definition of such weapons, encompassing most semiautomatic pistols. Such magazine-loaded semiautomatic pistols -- the kind of weapons commonly carried by police officers -- are the most popular handguns on the market. The D.C. law on machine guns was not a focus of the Supreme Court case. The suit contends that defining a semiautomatic pistol as a machine gun "is contrary to the ordinary usage of those terms in the English language and in the laws of the United States."
Heller registered a revolver with the District on July 18. He also sought to register a semiautomatic .45-caliber Colt handgun, but that application was denied because police considered it a machine gun, the suit alleges. The suit says Heller could have been arrested had he taken his semiautomatic, which he stores in Virginia, to be registered at D.C. police headquarter.
The plaintiffs, including District residents Absalom F. Jordan Jr. and Amy McVey, allege that the new regulations are a burden. McVey must visit D.C. police headquarters at least two more times to register a pistol, the suit says. Jordan's application to register a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol was denied, the suit says.
The city requires that legally registered revolvers be kept unloaded and either disassembled or secured with trigger locks, unless the owner reasonably fears immediate harm by an intruder in the home.
That rule flouts the Supreme Court decision, making it virtually impossible for a gun owner to legally use a weapon in self-defense, said Heller's attorney, Stephen P. Halbrook.
"Under the D.C. [law], a robber has to make an appointment with you so you can get your gun ready for him," Halbrook said in an interview.
Gun rights advocates have threatened litigation since the city enacted its registration rules July 16, three weeks after the Supreme Court ruling. The District's acting attorney general, Peter Nickles, said yesterday that the city's and Heller's interpretations of the high court ruling are fundamentally at odds.
In the District's view, Nickles said, the ruling gives people the right to use firearms in self-defense but not the right to keep firearms loaded and ready for use in case the need for self-defense arises. As a result, he said, it is reasonable for the city to require that handguns be kept unloaded and disabled when the owner is not under a direct threat.
Nickles also said the Supreme Court decision allows governments to ban firearms that it considers unreasonably dangerous, and the District includes semiautomatic pistols in that category. "This is going to be a long fight," Nickles said, referring to disputes across the country over the meaning of the Supreme Court ruling.
Without commenting on Heller's latest lawsuit, D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said the new gun-registration law was enacted as emergency legislation shortly after the Supreme Court decision. He said the District will probably change the rules in coming months. "The council's action in introducing emergency legislation . . . was meant to be a quick response," said Mendelson, chairman of the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. "It was not meant to be a comprehensive response."
The committee has scheduled a Sept. 18 hearing to discuss possible changes to the registration rules.
"I believe we addressed exactly what the Supreme Court asked us to address" in the emergency legislation, Mendelson said. "But as I said at the time, this is not perfect, it's not complete."
On the storage requirements, Mendelson said, "I hope that people who agree with Mr. Heller will explain to us [at the hearing] what the best ways are to ensure safe storage."