More than 800 people have asked the D.C. police for licenses to carry loaded concealed handguns when they dine, shop and walk the streets of the nation’s capital. In the months since a court ordered city officials to scale back gun-control laws, police department records show that more than half the applicants are not District residents.
The loosening of the law marks a cultural shift in a city where most residents could not legally keep handguns in their homes until a landmark Supreme Court decision a decade ago. City officials have long fought efforts to chip away at the District’s strict controls since the high court used a local case in 2008 to declare that a person has a right to gun ownership.
A string of successful legal challenges from gun rights advocates culminated last fall, and it is now much easier to get a permit to carry a handgun in the District.
“It’s definitely a new day,” said former assistant police chief Diane Groomes, who oversees security at the new Wharf development of restaurants, hotels and stores on the Southwest Waterfront.
On the third-floor of D.C. police headquarters, officials have started issuing what are expected to be hundreds of licenses. The permits are the first approved since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in October struck down a key provision of the city’s law that had required residents to show a “good reason” to carry a firearm outside the home.
City officials decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court because of the potential national implications. An unfavorable ruling could have weakened gun-control regulations in states such as California, New York and Maryland.
Since the October court order, 807 people have applied for concealed carry permits in the District. Before the ruling, there were only 123 active concealed carry licenses, and the D.C. police rejected 77 percent of applicants for failing to list a “good reason.”
For all of 2017, police department records show, 55 percent of the applicants live outside the city, mostly in Virginia and Maryland.
Police Chief Peter Newsham and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who oversaw the rewriting of city gun laws, cautioned that not all applicants will be approved and that the District still has a stringent list of qualifications for a permit, including safety training, fingerprinting and background checks. Also, permits are not issued to anyone with a history of violence or mental illness.
“It’s easier, but it’s not easy in the sense that any Joe can get a license to carry,” Mendelson said. “The city is not safer with more guns,” he added, “but we respect constitutional rights, and our law conforms.”
Even with easier access to permits, the city is not wide open for carrying handguns. Many sections of D.C. are off-limits, including iconic spots like the public memorials on the Mall, the White House and the U.S. Capitol buildings and grounds.
Schools and child-care campuses, hospitals, sports stadiums and certain public events are also restricted locations.
One of the most conspicuous changes even for people who are not carrying could occur at restaurants that serve alcohol. Concealed weapons are banned from bars and nightclubs by law. But restaurants that opt to keep out handguns will need to prominently display signs specifically prohibiting them.
Kathy Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said she wants to ensure that local owners have options and guidance about posting signs to determine how they want to respond to the change and the increase in potential permit holders.
She said she does not expect that D.C. restaurateurs will want patrons to bring handguns with them to dine.
“It’s concerning on many levels,” Hollinger said. “It changes the culture.”
Newsham stressed that the law does not permit open carry and that those with permits must keep their handguns out of public view.
“To the extent it’s exposed to the public or the police, there will be a stop, there will be an inquiry, and they will be asked to show a permit,” the chief said.
Groomes, the former head of patrol officers, said she is concerned about police on the front lines who will be more likely now to encounter people carrying legally and will have to quickly assess whether someone has a permit.
“Officers work on split-second decisions. At what point do you ask, ‘Do you have a permit?’ The delay could lead to danger,” she said.
In her new role at the Wharf, a lively location where many people are imbibing, Groomes also worries about greater access to handguns and the potential for people to overreact in arguments.
“We can’t control individual behavior,” she said. “What if the wrong person has a gun?”
The change in the District comes as Congress has debated legislation that would allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines. The measure, passed by the House, would treat concealed carry permits like driver’s licenses, making permits issued in one state valid in all other states. Under D.C. law, gun owners with permits from other states still have to apply separately to carry in Washington.
The city has a population of about 690,000 residents that swells daily with workers from Maryland and Virginia and with visitors from throughout the country.
The police department said it is prohibited by law from providing the names of permit holders and applicants, and it declined to provide a detailed breakdown of where the applicants live.
Among the first people back in the pipeline after the court decision were Brian Wrenn and Matthew Grace, two of the people who brought the federal court challenges.
Grace, a financial adviser who lives near Catholic University, was denied a permit in 2015, then approved after a court ruling in 2016 before being rejected again after a subsequent court arrived at a different decision about what the city could demand of applicants.
Grace said he applied after a friend was robbed at gunpoint while making a deposit at a local bank. At the time, the law required an applicant for a permit to list a “good reason to fear injury” beyond living in a high-crime neighborhood or feeling unsafe.
Grace bristled at the idea of having to justify his desire to protect himself.
“I wasn’t going to try to manufacture a reason. It’s the Bill of Rights. You shouldn’t need a reason,” he said recently, referring to the Second Amendment right to “bear arms.”
Even though the city waived the $75 application fee for individuals who had already paid it when they were originally rejected because of the “good reason” standard, Grace and Wrenn were told that the new review process still would take about 90 days.
Their permits were approved in late January.
Peter Hermann and Peter Jamison contributed to this report.