Appeals court judges had tough questions on Tuesday for the District’s lawyers about strict limits the city places on carrying concealed firearms on the streets of the nation’s capital.
At issue for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit were two challenges to the District’s system that requires residents to demonstrate a “good reason” to get a permit.
D.C. officials say the restrictions are necessary in a city that struggles with gun violence and faces heightened security challenges because of a concentration of federal government buildings and public officials.
Gun rights groups and Republican attorneys general from more than a dozen states are among those asking the court to find Washington’s restrictions on concealed carry unconstitutional. The challenges follow the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision that used a D.C. case to declare that people have the right to gun ownership unrelated to military service.
In D.C., residents who want a permit to carry a concealed firearm must show that they have “good reason to fear injury” or a “proper reason,” such as transporting valuables.
The three-judge appeals panel is specifically being asked to decide whether the city’s permitting restrictions can remain in place while the challenge to the law is litigated.
Judges Thomas B. Griffith and Stephen F. Williams seemed most concerned Tuesday about the possibility that a woman living alone in a high-crime area, for instance, with neighbors who had been attacked, might not qualify for a permit.
“Isn’t it an inherent right?” Griffith asked Assistant Attorney General Holly Johnson. “Why should I have to show a need before exercising that right?”
The District’s law is among the strictest in the country: 88 people have been approved for concealed-carry permits. According to the police department, 309 applicants were denied.
At one point during oral arguments, Williams seemed skeptical there was much difference between the city’s “good reason” requirement and an “outright ban,” saying a distinction “exists, but it’s small.”
The District’s concealed-carry rules are similar to those in Maryland, New Jersey, New York and some jurisdictions in California.
Even as Griffith and Williams pressed lawyers representing the city, they noted that similar permitting systems have survived legal challenges in three other federal appeals courts. The judges asked attorneys for the opponents of the D.C. law what was different about the District’s regulation.
“You’re just saying, ‘They are wrong?’ ” Williams said in questioning attorney David Thompson.
The judges also noted the importance of adhering to the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions. They referred several times to Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2008 opinion that found that the Second Amendment right to possess a firearm for self-defense is most “acute” in the home.
The Supreme Court has turned down several opportunities to decide whether regulations that cover carrying firearms in public are constitutional. The high court also has not answered the question of whether the Second Amendment extends into a right to carry guns into public spaces.
Griffith pressed attorney Alan Gura, who is representing opponents of the permitting restrictions, whether Gura was asking the court to extend the Second Amendment right beyond the home. Gura acknowledged that the right to carry is not “absolute” but said the city system “precludes access for the majority of people in D.C.”
“What the city cannot do is destroy that right entirely,” Gura said.
Much of the discussion Tuesday centered on conflicting interpretations of the history of gun regulations, with references to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and early American and English law.
Loren L. AliKhan, the city’s deputy solicitor general, told the court there is a “rich history” of banning concealed carry in highly populated public places because of safety concerns.
Thompson, the lawyer for District resident Matthew Grace and the gun rights group Pink Pistols, said such comprehensive bans were not the norm historically and that the city’s law is akin to an “absolute ban.”
“For the typical law-abiding citizen, who has not been subject to a specific threat, this is a ban,” he said.
Griffith, a President George W. Bush nominee, was in the majority in the court’s 2007 opinion that overturned the District’s decades-old ban on handguns. The third judge on the panel, Karen LeCraft Henderson, dissented in that ruling and sided last year with the city when it argued — unsuccessfully — to keep a one-gun-per-month limit on firearms registration. She did not ask a question during oral arguments Tuesday.