District officials will not appeal a court order blocking enforcement of the city's restrictions on carrying concealed guns in public, setting the stage for what could be a marked increase in firearms on the streets of the nation's capital.
The city's decision not to risk appeal to the Supreme Court comes as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is expected to issue an order as soon as Friday enforcing a ruling that struck down the District's requirement that people seeking licenses to carry concealed weapons must demonstrate a "good reason" — such as a credible fear of violence — for carrying a gun in public.
Announcing his decision, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said he continued to believe the city's law was sensible and constitutional. But he said an unfavorable ruling on the law from the Supreme Court would put similar concealed-carry restrictions across the country in jeopardy.
"We must reckon with the fact that an adverse decision by the Supreme Court could have wide-ranging negative effects not just on District residents, but on the country as a whole," Racine said in a statement.
The decision not to go to the high court means permit-seekers can begin applying to carry concealed weapons as soon as the appeals court issues a formal mandate officially eliminating the "good reason" requirement. Hundreds of applicants have been denied in recent years because of that requirement, but must still reapply — and go through criminal background checks and firearms training — once the law is scrapped.
"I don't want to give anyone the misimpression that they can just go there and carry a gun right now," D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said at a news conference Thursday, appearing with Racine, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the council's judiciary committee.
It is not yet clear whether city officials will attempt to rewrite the law to enforce additional permit restrictions beyond the requirements the appeals court left intact.
D.C. Council members could try to tighten regulations without violating the appeals court ruling by adding more training requirements, for instance, or by creating new security zones barring guns in public similar to those that exist around schools, public memorials and some government buildings.
But Mendelson said that the city already has extensive training requirements and buffer zones, and that many of the gun controls being discussed nationally — following the Las Vegas massacre — have already been adopted in the District.
"I would say there are no obvious changes," Mendelson said.
The District's choice of whether to appeal the case, Wrenn v. District of Columbia, was being closely watched by gun-control activists and state attorneys general across the country. Many argued against an appeal in the District because of the risk that an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling could strike down similar concealed-carry regulations in states such as California, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Racine said he had received calls from gun-control advocates and elected officials in other parts of the country laying out the risks of an appeal. He said, however, he was focused on the District's interests when he made his decision. A loss at the high court that loosened gun-control laws throughout the country could result in more weapons being carried into the District from nearby jurisdictions, he said.
Bowser, who consulted with Racine on the decision, said an appeal to the Supreme Court could also have entailed risks for the District because the justices would have had an opportunity to strike down additional requirements that are in the concealed-carry law.
The dilemma faced by city officials mirrored the choice made in 2007, when the same appeals court found the District's handgun ban unconstitutional. Led by former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the city took the case, District of Columbia v. Heller, to the high court — prompting a landmark decision that established for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms separate from military service.
The Supreme Court has shown little interest in going further to decide whether the Second Amendment applies outside the home. The high court has declined to consider challenges to decisions by other circuit courts that have upheld similar concealed-carry restrictions.
Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said District officials had taken a "risk-averse approach" that avoids the possibility of an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling that would affect concealed-carry regulations in other states. On the other hand, he said, the choice preserves a tense status quo.
The city's decision not to proceed to the Supreme Court to "give a definitive answer on the subject creates a situation where the Second Amendment means one thing in Washington, D.C., and something different across the border in Maryland," he said.
"This is an area where it would be useful to have national uniformity, and the decision not to go to the Supreme Court means we're not going to have that."
The unfavorable ruling from the D.C. Circuit in July that found the "good reason" requirement unconstitutional was the latest legal setback to the District's efforts to restrict the number of guns in the nation's capital.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the appeals court said the city's strict permitting system was essentially an outright ban in violation of Second Amendment protections. The city has rejected 425 permit applicants — or 77 percent — because of the "good reason" requirement, according to the police department.
Two years ago, the appeals court also blocked the District's one-gun-per-month law as unconstitutional and struck down other requirements that gun owners re-register weapons every three years and pass an exam on local gun laws.
Even without the "good reason" requirement to carry in public, the city has some of the toughest laws in the country. Residents must undergo 16 hours firearms safety training, two hours of range training, and training on D.C. gun law and self-defense. The city does not allow gun licenses or permits for people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors.
Capitol Hill resident Archie Kelly, a former TV journalist whose application was denied about two years ago because he had not articulated a "good reason" for carrying a gun in public, said city officials' announcement Thursday was welcome news.
"It's been very frustrating and quite protracted," Kelly said of monitoring the legal machinations. Kelly, who grew up hunting in Wisconsin, said D.C. residents should have the same Second Amendment rights as people who live in Virginia, Utah or anywhere else in the United States.