A defeat this week for gun restrictions in the District has once again thrust the city into a national battle over the Second Amendment that could test the legal limits of not only gun controls but also gun rights.
A federal judge on Monday ruled unconstitutional a District law requiring a “good reason” to be granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon. As D.C. officials consider whether to file an appeal, legal experts say the case could wind up before the Supreme Court.
Gun rights activists have taken aim at firearms restrictions across the nation. But the District is a unique battleground for the debate, primarily because of its heightened national security considerations — a factor that could prompt a historic higher-court decision setting limits to the constitutional right to bear arms.
Advocates for greater gun controls say that while they expect federal appeals courts to uphold laws such as the District’s, the high court may still seek to use it to tackle questions left unanswered in prior rulings.
“Does the Second Amendment apply outside the home, and if it does, to what extent?” said Mike McLively, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-safety legal advocacy group. “This case pretty much square-on asks that question.”
Monday’s ruling guts a law, passed in September, allowing police to use discretion in granting licenses to D.C. residents applying to carry concealed firearms in public. Applicants had to show “good reason to fear injury to his or her person or property” or “any other proper reason for carrying a pistol,” such as employment transporting cash or other valuables.
In an interview on NewsChannel 8, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Tuesday that without the “good reason” clause, anyone seeking a gun in the District will no longer have to provide a reason.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Tuesday that her office was still reviewing legal options, but she vowed “to fight to ensure the District has the safest gun laws in the nation.”
“Today, D.C. is safer than it has been in years, and we will not retreat from that progress,” she said in a statement.
The ruling marks the latest twist in a battle that began more than a decade ago, when gun rights groups targeted the D.C. ban on handguns and gun-control regulations in other states. The result was a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protected individuals’ right to own a gun in the home.
That decision effectively struck down an outright District ban on gun ownership that had been in place for three decades.
Another decision last year — stemming from a case involving some of the same plaintiffs and the same legal architect, Alan Gura — went further by overturning the District’s ban on carrying firearms in public.
In response, the District enacted the legislation in September that allowed residents with registered handguns, as well as legal gun owners from other states, to carry weapons on D.C. streets as long as they were subjected to a strict approval process by police.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who drafted the law with mayoral and police officials, said Tuesday that lawmakers worked “very carefully” when they wrote the legislation and that he thought the language remains “constitutionally defensible.”
“I would hope that we would appeal the decision,” he said.
Gun rights advocates, including Gura, argue that the District’s laws are overly restrictive and seek to limit gun rights in ways that are not seen in the exercise of other constitutional rights.
But gun-control advocates point to precedents.
In recent years, federal circuit courts in New York, New Jersey and Maryland have upheld “may issue” (as opposed to “shall issue”) permitting systems similar to the District’s. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review those cases.
Courts cited the country’s long history and tradition of regulating concealed weapons, finding, for instance, that such laws in New Jersey date to 1924 and to the mid-to-late-1800s in many other states. Judges also reasoned that the Supreme Court did not state whether the constitutional right to keep or carry arms extended beyond the home and that even if a “may
issue” law “impinges” on the Second Amendment, it can be balanced against the important government purpose of protecting public safety.
In the only circuit where a three-judge panel found otherwise, overturning a law passed by San Diego, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit vacated the panel’s 2-to-1 decision this March and will hear oral arguments in June.
According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, nine of the 46 states that require a state-
issued permit to carry concealed weapons in public have “may issue” laws granting authorities wide discretion to deny permits to applicants lacking “good reason.” Of the other 37 states, 20 provide limited discretion.
The District’s unique position as the home of the president, Congress, the federal government, federal law enforcement agencies and scores of foreign diplomats could be a tipping point for gun control.
“Not only our own residents, but the highest federal and state officials and world figures frequent the streets and public places of this city,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Tuesday in a statement. “The city’s gun safety laws cannot ignore this reality.”
Norton said that she thinks there is a “good chance” the decision will be overturned.
Meanwhile, Lanier played down the immediate impact of the ruling, saying that the department has received “very few applications” to carry firearms — and very few have been turned down.
During the television interview, the police chief said that about 100 people have applied for gun carry permits and that most are people who do not live in the District.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.