The thousands of licenses issued in the past three years are in stark contrast to the previous decade in the District, before a set of court rulings required city officials to loosen restrictive gun laws. Most D.C. residents were not permitted to keep firearms in their homes, let alone carry loaded pistols in public, until a landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision declared an individual right to gun ownership.
The surge in permits comes after a separate ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that struck down a key provision of the city’s law in 2017 that had required residents to show a “good reason” to carry a firearm outside the home.
In the months after the court decision, the police department began approving hundreds of permits. Before the decision, there were only 123 active licenses, and D.C. police denied 77 percent of applicants for failing to provide the required “good reason.”
D.C. police have since signed off on 4,808 permits, according to data the department provided March 5 to council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee. Permits expire after two years, and there are 4,147 active license-holders, according to the department’s records division.
The numbers were released this month, before gun shops around the country began widely reporting increases in sales to consumers fearing possible coronavirus-related upheaval.
Allen said he is concerned that the large number of people potentially carrying legal firearms in public puts D.C. police officers in a difficult position to distinguish between someone concealing a legal gun and someone hiding an illegal firearm.
“Does that put them at greater risk? I think it does,” Allen said of the officers. “It’s unnerving to the public, and it troubles me.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said police officers on the street have not complained to him about encountering legal firearms.
“The extent of crime we have involving legally registered firearms is very, very low,” Newsham said, adding, “I think we have too many illegal firearms in the District.”
In 2019, there were 42 crimes involving registered firearms, and most were technical matters including improper registration or storage of the guns, Newsham said. There was one fatal shooting, six assaults with a dangerous weapon and two robberies committed with firearms legally registered in the District. Newsham declined to identify the fatal shooting, but he said it was ruled unjustified.
The District’s police chief has made illegal firearms in the city a top priority for cutting crime. While overall violent crime has dropped 34 percent in the District since 2015, homicides fueled by illegal firearms continue to be a problem. The District finished 2019 with a decade high 166 homicides and is on a similar pace this year. Of the homicides last year, police said 135 of them were committed with firearms.
A total of 2,299 illegal firearms were seized in the District in 2019, a 19 percent increase over the previous year.
D.C. resident Dorie Nolt’s son attends preschool in the Shaw neighborhood, which has recently experienced a spate of shootings, including the fatal shooting this month of a 13-year-old boy. Nolt, a gun violence prevention activist, said the presence of more guns in the city, including legal ones, makes her feel less safe.
Of the nearly 1,530 permits approved in the last fiscal year, more than half were issued to residents of neighboring states. About 600 were issued to Maryland residents and more than 200 to Virginia residents. A much smaller number of licenses were issued to people who live in other states, including Florida, New York and North Carolina.
“I have no problem with people who want to own guns; my problem is with people who feel the need to come into my city with a concealed weapon because they are afraid,” Nolt said. “That fear drives people to do very dangerous, deadly things.”
After being denied a permit under the previous, more restrictive rules, Capitol Hill resident Archie Kelly obtained a license to carry following the 2017 court decision. He has kept his .45 caliber, semiautomatic pistol in a holster clipped to his belt and hidden inside his waistband, particularly during walks in the evening.
“It’s totally unobtrusive and working the way it’s supposed to work,” Kelly said. “I do feel like I have protection if and when I need it.”
Even with a concealed-carry permit, many parts of the city are still gun-free zones, including the public memorials on the Mall and the U.S. Capitol buildings and grounds. Schools and child-care campuses, hospitals, sports stadiums, and certain public events are also restricted locations.
The permitting process requires safety training, fingerprinting and background checks. Licenses are not to be issued to anyone with a history of violence or mental illness.
Kelly applied to renew his permit in late December and is still waiting for approval. The gun violence problem in the city, he said, is largely not attributed to people with permits.
“Anyone who goes through this onerous process,” he said, “by definition is somebody who is going to be responsible.”