D.C.'s Rights to Regulate Guns

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier at a House hearing on D.C. gun laws last year.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier at a House hearing on D.C. gun laws last year. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Phil Mendelson
Sunday, March 22, 2009

The National Rifle Association has congratulated Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) for "restoring the Second Amendment freedom" to D.C. residents with his amendment to the D.C. Voting Rights Act. Ensign's amendment would repeal most of the District's gun control law, which was revised in response to the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Make no mistake, Ensign and the NRA want to substitute their own view of the Constitution for that of the Supreme Court. They insist that registration in any form is an unreasonable burden on the Second Amendment, so they would strike down our registration law wholesale.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, didn't see it that way. When the Supreme Court ordered the District to permit Dick Heller to register his handgun, the court not only struck down our ban on pistols, but it also upheld the constituionality of gun registration.

Why does the District want to register firearms so badly? Chances are, when an unregistered gun is seized by police, they have encountered a criminal, not an otherwise law-abiding citizen. Being able to charge that individual with possession of an unregistered firearm is an important crime-fighting tool. It might even get a gang member off the street before something worse happens.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier summed it up when she testified last year on a House version of the Ensign amendment: "In my professional opinion, if H.R. 6691 were passed, it would be far more difficult for . . . [the Metropolitan Police Department] and federal law enforcement agencies in the District of Columbia to ensure safety and security in the Nation's Capital."

As a dense urban area, Washington has a far different experience and history with guns than suburban and rural America. But Lanier was referring to more: daily movements of the president and vice president around the city, a workplace for 535 members of Congress, a destination for more than 400 foreign dignitaries making official visits each year, and a stage for national demonstrations and quadrennial presidential inaugurations. This makes the District an unusually symbolic -- and attractive -- target for violent behavior.

Congress would repeal our law that prohibits firearms purchases by people who have a history of violent behavior or who have committed domestic violence. It would require us to permit possession of assault-style weapons.

Repealing our gun law, and further repealing the District's local legislative authority, would have repercussions for public safety. It would be harder to arrest chronic criminals, because police would no longer be able to charge them with possessing unregistered weapons. It would be harder for police to trace guns used in crimes, because there would be no registration system. It would be harder for Lanier to be proactive about gun violence, because federal law only records gun information such as ballistics after a crime has occurred.

Ironically, it's a Republican principle to respect states' rights and to leave local governance to the locals. The Supreme Court in Heller struck a balance between the right of individuals to protect themselves and the right of individuals to be protected. If we so limit gun control as to favor individuals to protect themselves, but then disadvantage the right of individuals to be protected by the police, what will we have gained for the public good?

I hope that members of Congress will put aside the Second Amendment rhetoric. Thirty-seven senators, including Ensign, voted against their own amendment when they voted against the final bill. Listen to Chief Lanier and others in law enforcement. Put public safety first and reject the Senate's amendment.

The writer is an at-large member of the D.C. Council and chairman of the council's Committee on Public Safety & the Judiciary.

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