Passing D.C.'s Rules to Get a Gun Was Hard, but the Weapon Posed Its Own Test

Washington Post reporter Chris Davenport was asked by his editor to buy a gun. Follow Davenport's journey as he navigates the practical and moral issues of purchasing and owning a handgun in D.C. Video by Elaine McMillion/The Washington Post
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It took $833.69, a total of 15 hours 50 minutes, four trips to the Metropolitan Police Department, two background checks, a set of fingerprints, a five-hour class and a 20-question multiple-choice exam.

Oh, and the votes of five Supreme Court justices. They're the ones who really made it possible for me, as a District resident, to own a handgun, a constitutional right as heavily debated and rigorously parsed as the freedoms of speech and religion.

Just more than a year ago, by a 5-to-4 decision, the court struck down the District's three-decades-old outright ban on handguns -- the most restrictive gun law in the country. In District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said the Second Amendment guarantees the right of an individual to bear arms, not just Americans in a "well regulated Militia"; the District's prohibition was therefore unconstitutional.

Reluctantly, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration set up a process through which about 550 residents -- now including yours truly -- have acquired a handgun. But as my four trips to the police department attest, D.C. officials haven't made it easy.

Which was exactly their intent. The day the Heller decision was announced, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) vowed that the city was still "going to have the strictest handgun laws the Constitution allows." Fenty decried the ruling, saying that "more handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence."

Under threat of additional litigation, however, the city has already had to ease some of its initial restrictions by greatly expanding the range of gun models, including semiautomatic handguns, residents are allowed to own.

Meanwhile, the battle over the right to bear arms in the nation's capital continues. The lawyer who won the Heller case recently filed a federal lawsuit attempting to overturn the District law that prohibits private citizens from packing heat in public. Earlier this year, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) attempted to do away with the city's gun registration requirements.

For now, the D.C. regulations are still in place. That meant that on my journey to gun ownership, I had to prove proficiency with a weapon on the range and in the classroom. I had to allow the District government to fire my gun before I did so its ballistics could be recorded. I had to vow that I was mentally sound and not under indictment.

In the end, I got my gun. But I keep it locked in a box in my dresser. Because despite the fact that my government trusts me to own a gun, I'm not sure how I feel about having a weapon that can send a piece of metal the size of a thimble hurtling through space with such speed that it could make someone's head explode.

I've been surrounded my whole life by people who see guns as a cause of social ill, not a cure. But what if they're wrong? I live in a dangerous part of a dangerous city. I've heard gunshots from my bedroom window clearly enough so there was no mistaking them for firecrackers. And then, about a month or so ago, my wife went out to her car and saw the glass on the ground and then the shattered window. Nothing can make you want a gun more than that sickening, helpless moment when you realize you are more vulnerable than you had thought.

* * *

If I lived in Virginia, I'd simply walk into a shop, show my ID, fill out forms and then wait while the store calls for my background check, which can take all of three minutes. If I pass, the gun is mine. Or I could buy a gun from a private citizen and forgo the background check. No safety course required (unless I'm applying for a concealed-handgun permit, which is not even an option in the District). No need to register the gun with the government (unless it's a machine gun, which is, again, not an option in the District).

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