Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court struck down the District’s long-standing ban on handguns, the city is again at the forefront of a legal battle over the Second Amendment.
Gun rights advocates have scored a series of victories in the District since the high court’s landmark 2008 ruling and are pressing this month to make it easier to carry firearms on the streets of the nation’s capital.
The pending cases have drawn the attention of gun rights groups and Republican attorneys general from more than a dozen states who are among those asking federal judges to find Washington’s restrictions on concealed-carry unconstitutional.
Local officials have been forced time and again to rewrite the District’s gun laws since the Supreme Court used a D.C. case to declare that individuals have the right to gun ownership unrelated to military service. The decision cleared the way for D.C. residents to keep handguns in their homes and is driving the attempt to expand the number of people who can carry concealed weapons in public.
At issue for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is the city’s system that requires residents to demonstrate a “good reason to fear injury” or show a “proper reason,” such as transporting valuables, to get a permit.
Two judges sitting in the same federal court for the District have reached different conclusions about the key component of the city’s gun-control law. The D.C. Circuit has consolidated those challenges that a three-judge panel will consider on Sept. 20.
The District’s law is among the strictest in the nation: Eighty-eight people have been approved for concealed-carry permits. According to the police department, 309 applicants were denied.
D.C. officials say the restrictions are reasonable and necessary in a city that struggles with gun violence and faces heightened security challenges because of a concentration of federal government buildings and diplomats.
The District’s concealed-carry rules are similar to those in Maryland, New Jersey, New York and some jurisdictions in California. Those systems have survived legal challenges in three other federal appeals courts.
Since the high court’s ruling in the case known as District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court has turned down numerous opportunities to decide whether regulations that cover carrying firearms in public are constitutional.
That has left the issues for the lower courts to resolve.
“The question of whether and to what extent the Second Amendment extends into a right to carry guns into public spaces is probably the most important constitutional question that could affect American gun policy since Heller,” said Jonathan E. Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In one of the D.C. decisions up for review, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly left enforcement of the city’s law in place. She noted the District’s strong interest in promoting public safety and wrote that the “potential risk to others” from concealed firearms is “far greater than the risk of possessing a handgun within the home.”
Two months later, Judge Richard J. Leon, who sits on the same court, said in the second pending case that the city’s law is probably unconstitutional. He called the District’s restrictions on public carry “overzealous” and said the rules violate the “core right of self-defense.”
The three judges who will hear the appeals this month were nominated to the federal bench by Republican presidents. Judge Thomas B. Griffith, a George W. Bush nominee, was in the majority in the court’s 2007 opinion that overturned the District’s decades-old ban on handguns.
Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, nominated by George H.W. Bush, dissented in the 2007 ruling and sided last year with the city when it argued — unsuccessfully — to keep a one-gun-per-month limit on firearms registration.
The third judge, Stephen F. Williams, was nominated by Ronald Reagan.
In court filings leading to the Sept. 20 oral arguments, gun rights advocates say the District’s requirement that permit seekers show an extraordinary threat denies a constitutional right to most law-abiding citizens.
Opponents of the law note that the ruling in Heller specifies that firearms can be banned from “sensitive places,” such as schools and government buildings. But they say a citywide permitting system has the effect of extending that ban to many violence-prone areas that do not have those buildings but where citizens may want to arm themselves.
“Telling a citizen walking the streets of a dangerous neighborhood that she can obtain a permit for self-defense after she is suddenly attacked by a violent criminal is a bit like telling a passenger on a cruise ship that she is free to come back to the dock to pick up a life jacket if she falls overboard,” according to the brief filed on behalf of the National Rifle Association by attorney Paul D. Clement, who was solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration.
Gun-control advocates and city officials respond in court filings that more guns on the streets lead to more violence and make it more difficult and dangerous for law enforcement officials to do their jobs. The District saw a 54 percent increase in the number of murders from 2014 to 2015. In the current year, homicides have dropped more than 10 percent.
Limiting the number of concealed weapons on the streets of a densely populated, urban area advances public safety, they say.
The city “is fighting to simply maintain one of the principal tools it has to combat gun violence,” attorney Adam K. Levin wrote in a brief filed by the Brady Center in support of the District’s laws. “Now is not the time to decrease gun regulation in the nation’s capital.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.