D.C. Gun Exception Alarms Md. Officials
Under Amendment, City Residents Could Buy Firearms in Maryland, Virginia

By Paul Duggan and Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

As D.C. officials fret over the public safety implications of a congressional push to limit gun control in the city, the administration of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has voiced its own objections, arguing that the legislation would put a costly burden on the state's system for regulating firearms.

In Virginia, however, a spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) expressed no immediate alarm over the measure, saying Kaine and the Virginia State Police want to study the proposal before offering an opinion.

At issue for the District's neighbors is a key provision in a much-debated amendment to the D.C. voting-rights bill on Capitol Hill. Besides stripping the District of much of its power to regulate guns, the amendment would create an exception in federal law for D.C. residents, allowing them to buy handguns in Maryland and Virginia.

People elsewhere in the country are permitted to make such purchases only in the states where they live.

Saying Maryland "should not be expected to become properly equipped" to run background checks on out-of-state handgun buyers, the director of O'Malley's Office of Crime Control and Prevention told U.S. senators in a letter that the task would require difficult, time-consuming technological preparations, costing Maryland millions of the dollars.

"This is not a game," the director, Kristen Mahoney, said in an interview. "This has nothing to do with the politics of the matter. Operationally, this is impossible. And that's what legislators have to realize."

The amendment is a response to a firearms law enacted by the city after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the District's longtime ban on handgun ownership last year. Supporters of the amendment, which would abolish most of the new rules and limit future ones, say the city has violated the court ruling by making it too difficult for residents to legally buy and keep guns.

It would allow residents to buy handguns in Maryland and Virginia because, at the moment, only one federally licensed firearms dealer is doing business in the city, and he does not have a store. Under current rules, buyers in the District have to arrange for handguns to be shipped to the dealer from outside the city so they can purchase them without crossing state lines.

Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the amendment's sponsor, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), said no one in his office had seen Mahoney's letter. "If she'd like to talk through these issues," Mazzola said, "we'd be happy to talk about them."

Virginia officials have publicly shared no dire concerns about the amendment. "We are familiar with the issue and are currently evaluating the matter to see what, if any, position the Virginia State Police might take," said Corrine Geller, a spokeswoman for the agency, which is responsible for gun-related background checks.

Each state's laws regarding gun sales would apply to customers from the District. For example, Maryland and Virginia both limit handgun purchases to one a month. The question is how to screen out unacceptable buyers.

To check the backgrounds of District residents to make sure they are eligible to buy guns under Maryland or Virginia rules, officials in those states would have to search D.C. records.

Virginia officials note that such information is available through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which compiles federal, state and D.C. data on criminal arrests and convictions, outstanding arrest warrants, commitments to mental institutions, protective orders related to domestic violence and other disqualifying records.

In examining the backgrounds of Virginians who want to purchase guns, "we're already checking all the states' databases" along with records from the District, said Donna Tate, manager of the Virginia State Police program that monitors firearms transactions. "As long as they're reporting it to the FBI, we're seeing it."

Maryland officials also run NICS checks. And like their counterparts in Virginia, they check an array of in-state databases as well, looking for disqualifying information that might not have made it into the federal computer.

Mahoney said Maryland authorities are worried about gaps in information reported to the national database by the District and the 50 states, including her own. That is why Marylanders and Virginians seeking to buy firearms are double-checked through an array of databases in their respective states, she said.

She warned that ineligible gun buyers from the District might slip through the cracks unless the state has direct access to D.C. records, a concern that Virginia officials have not publicly expressed.

Even if Maryland eventually surmounts the costly technological problem of connecting its computer systems to the District's, Mahoney said in her letter, significant hurdles would remain.

"Maryland State Police would have to quickly gain an understanding of the various D.C. data systems (mental health records, etc.) . . . to ensure their validity and integrity," she wrote. "This is especially problematic since state licensing staff do not control D.C. data, so it is difficult to speculate as to how the data would be verifiable."

The amendment, pending in Congress, would scuttle most of the city's new firearms regulations -- including a system of gun registration -- that the D.C. Council adopted after the landmark Supreme Court decision. The council also would be barred from imposing any future rules that "discourage" gun ownership.

One significant local restriction that would remain is a law against carrying firearms in public.

Ensign succeeded in attaching the amendment to a bill that would give the District a voting seat in the House, which was approved by the Senate last month. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been trying to forge a compromise between pro-gun legislators and D.C. officials, who have voiced anger at what they call congressional meddling in a local decision to regulate firearms.

D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) convened a roundtable on the issue yesterday before the Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination. Brown said the goal is "to ensure greater democracy for residents of the District of Columbia while not compromising our safety, security and limited ability to govern ourselves."

Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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