The Last Thing D.C. Needs: More Guns on the Streets

By Peter J. Nickles
Sunday, October 4, 2009

We are now presented with a new challenge to our D.C. gun laws and regulations. In this new lawsuit, celebrated last month by a commentary on this page, the courts are asked to decide whether an individual's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms includes the right to carry firearms openly or concealed in public for personal protection.

This issue arises in the wake of the historic Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia and the changes to the District's firearms laws that followed.

While other cities and states await the court's decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago to learn how the new interpretation of the Second Amendment will apply to them, the District has already acted to conform its laws to Heller. One of those important changes was to prohibit the carrying of pistols -- either openly or concealed -- outside a person's home or business. This was consistent with the Heller ruling, which was limited to recognizing an individual's right to keep and bear arms for the protection of "hearth and home." The prohibition was a critical part of efforts by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council to do everything possible to reduce gun violence within the District.

As the attorney general for the District, I will continue to defend vigorously the current laws confining firearms to legitimate uses in the home, in businesses and for recreation. No court has yet ruled under Heller that an individual's Second Amendment rights include carrying firearms in public. Indeed, the Supreme Court specifically stated that an individual's Second Amendment right, "like most rights . . . is not unlimited." The right is not a right "to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

The District is unique. Government facilities, dignitaries and public servants are prime targets for terrorists, both foreign and domestic, potentially making the city the worst place in the nation to permit anyone to carry firearms, either openly or concealed. As the nation's capital, the District hosts a large presence of government and diplomatic officials who require protection as they move about. We do not need to make it even more difficult to protect the city's residents and visitors. Allowing guns to be lawfully carried on D.C. streets would make it much harder for law enforcement to identify someone illegally carrying a firearm, intent on drawing national and international attention to a cause.

Not surprisingly, even as some in Congress proposed stripping the city of the authority to regulate firearms as the price for congressional voting rights, they recognized the unique and sensitive character of the District by including a provision that would expressly permit the D.C. Council to prohibit the "carrying of firearms by a person, either concealed or openly, other than at the person's dwelling place, place of business, or on other land possessed by the person." This makes it clear that even the strongest proponents of gun rights recognize the unique status of the District and agree that there is a compelling need to prevent the general public from carrying dangerous weapons on our streets.

The District's gun-related homicides have been reduced by effective measures to remove illegal firearms from the streets. This year's homicide rate is 28 percent lower than last year's, and the city is on pace to record the lowest number of homicides in 45 years. I can think of no more certain way to reverse the hard-fought gains against gun violence in our city than to permit the carrying of firearms in the city. I assure residents that I will do all within my power to vindicate the District's firearms polices and to protect the public from gun violence.

The writer is the attorney general for the District of Columbia.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company