House Democrats Seek Less-Rigid D.C. Gun Laws
Proposal Set for Vote Would Allow Semiautomatics and Change Storage, Registration Rules

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have agreed to allow a vote next month on a bill that would end local handgun control in the District, making it easier for D.C. residents to acquire pistols, including semiautomatics, while eliminating the strict handgun-storage requirements imposed by the city.

Supporters say the bill has a good chance of passing the House, where pro-gun measures are popular. But it is unclear whether it would succeed in the Senate, where complex rules make it harder to push through legislation.

"This poses a real danger," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said, criticizing the legislation as "radical" because it would gut the city's gun-control rules.

"If it passes the House," she said, "you have to hope the Senate doesn't take it up."

The measure, filed Thursday by several conservative Democrats, adds more fuel to the debate over gun control in the nation's capital. After a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision June 26 ended the city's 32-year-old handgun ban, the District replaced the ban with strict handgun limits, which critics say violate the high court's ruling.

The bill would scrap those limits, allowing residents to own handguns without registering them with the D.C. police department, provided they meet federal requirements for firearms ownership.

Besides abolishing the requirement that owners keep their handguns unloaded in their homes and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks, the measure would repeal the city's prohibition on most magazine-fed semiautomatic handguns -- a ban that has been in effect for decades and was not part of the Supreme Court case.

The legislation also would allow D.C. residents to buy and take delivery of handguns in Virginia and Maryland. Federal law currently prohibits gun buyers from acquiring the weapons in states where they do not reside.

Key negotiators on the bill, including Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), said in a statement that they have "an agreement with House leadership" for the measure to come to a vote early next month. The legislation was offered as a compromise after House Republicans had maneuvered to get a vote on another measure that would have gone even further, repealing a D.C. law that allows gunmakers to be sued by victims of firearms violence.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), one of the bill's sponsors, said supporters of the measure think that the city has "basically thumbed its nose" at the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision by enacting tough limits on handgun ownership. The majority opinion affirmed an individual's right under the Second Amendment to own firearms for self-defense but said that governments may enact reasonable restrictions.

If the legislation fails, Altmire said, "at least we, as people who are accountable to our constituents, can go back home and talk about what we did on the issue."

Forty-eight Democrats have signed on as sponsors of the bill, including Democrats from pro-gun districts who could be vulnerable in November's election. Norton said in a statement that those Democrats "hope to relieve election year pressure by getting a Democratic-backed bill to the floor, out of fear that the [National Rifle Association] will run hometown ads against their reelection."

Democrats have a 37-seat advantage in the House.

While the debate goes on, D.C. police are continuing to process gun-registration applications, limiting owners to one handgun each while the prohibition on most semiautomatic handguns remains in place.

As of Friday, police said, 21 applications had been received and 11 approved. Among those who now have legal handguns in their D.C. homes is Dick A. Heller, 66, a security guard from Capitol Hill who sued the city over the 1976 handgun ban and won the Supreme Court case.

Heller filed another lawsuit against the District last week, alleging that the restrictions imposed by the District after the high court's decision violate the letter and spirit of the ruling.

Of the 11 newly registered handguns, police said, eight had been stored outside the District by their owners while the ban was in place. The other three were kept illegally in D.C. homes during the ban and were registered in recent days under an amnesty program.

Police said three applications have been denied (and the handguns seized) because the applicants had criminal records. The other seven applications are pending.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said two men are federally licensed to sell firearms in D.C. But the men deal only with selected clients, including police officers and security companies, the agency said.

Unless the House legislation becomes law, allowing D.C. residents to purchase handguns across state lines in Virginia and Maryland, most would-be gun owners in the nation's capital will have to wait for a federally licensed dealer in the city to start doing business with more customers.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company