In D.C., Response to Judge’s Handgun Ruling Is Mixed and Muddled (Updated)

Posted July 28, 2014 at 4:11pm

Updated 6:01 p.m. | For all practical purposes, a federal judge’s weekend ruling that overturned local laws prohibiting District of Columbia residents from carrying guns outside of their homes has opened the door for non-residents to tote handguns into the city and has made it potentially easier for members and staffers to transport firearms across the District to the Capitol.

D.C. police have been ordered not to arrest people for carrying pistols and deadly weapons in public. Washingtonians can still face criminal charges for carrying unregistered firearms and ammunition, but the millions of people who visit the nation’s capital are exempt from those provisions under an order from Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. The chief’s guidance effectively put the District’s firearm regulations, at least for non-residents, on a par with the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the country. D.C. police got additional guidance from Lanier on Monday afternoon. She clarified that the ruling applies only to handguns, not long guns or shotguns that are still illegal, and that committing crimes with handguns remains illegal.

For non-residents, legal possession of a handgun in D.C. is based on the laws of their home jurisdiction, meaning D.C. police will be responsible for knowing and enforcing licensing and permitting restrictions from around the country. Lanier noted that additional information on gun laws in other states will be forthcoming and said that in the meantime, officers can call a 24-hour information line.

Lanier’s orders came in response to Judge Frederick Scullin Jr.’s July 26 ruling in Palmer v. District of Columbia that D.C.’s complete ban on the carrying of handguns in public is unconstitutional. In the 19-page decision, Scullin wrote that he was stopping enforcement of the law “unless and until” the city adopted a constitutionally valid licensing mechanism.

In her follow-up guidance to officers, Lanier nodded to the confusion. “Unfortunately, this ruling has left many unanswered legal questions that are currently being reviewed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” she stated.

Federal laws and a portion of D.C. code still prohibit people from carrying weapons on Capitol grounds, according to Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider. But members and staffers already have weapons privileges for the Capitol campus dating back decades.

Although the D.C. prohibition against firearms was put into place in 1975, members of Congress and their staffs have the legal right to bear arms on the Hill. Capitol Police Board regulations established in 1967 permit members and their aides to transport licensed firearms on the Capitol grounds in the course of carrying out their official duties, provided the weapons are “unloaded and securely wrapped.”

Although the regulations expressly prohibit weapons on the floor of either chamber, as well as in the adjacent lobbies, cloakrooms and galleries, individual members can “maintain firearms within the confines of [their] office.”

Before Lanier issued her order on Sunday, members and aides might have had to violate District law to transport a handgun to the Hill.

“Easing gun restrictions in the District of Columbia whether by court ruling or by regulation, certainly eases the way weapons are transported through the District,” said a former high-ranking Capitol Hill law enforcement official who spoke on background about the potential impact of the law.

On Monday afternoon, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan filed a motion to stay the effectiveness of the opinion.

Alan Gura, the lawyer who argued against D.C.’s gun law on behalf of the nonprofit Second Amendment Foundation, said the case had nothing to do with the Hill, but he expects members of Congress will be playing close attention to the outcome.

“As part-time residents of the District of Columbia,” Gura told CQ Roll Call, members can now enjoy “a greater measure of freedom in their lives,” thanks to the ruling.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 District of Columbia v. Heller decision made clear that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to gun ownership within the home. It also recognized that guns may be banned or controlled in certain “sensitive places,” including schools and government buildings.

Gura thinks a legal challenge to the federal and local laws prohibiting people from carrying guns on the Capitol grounds would be “far-fetched” under the Heller precedent and said it wasn’t a case he would argue.

Republicans in Congress have tried to overturn the city’s gun laws, to the outrage of locally elected officials.

D.C. Councilmember David Catania, a mayoral candidate running as an independent, said in a statement that strong gun control laws are critical to the District’s public safety, “a fact supported by the ban on possessing guns in federal buildings, on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and Congressional office buildings.”

“Having more guns on our streets does not make us safer and a rushed roll back of our laws will only result in confusion and create additional challenges for law enforcement in the District,” he said. “Once again, the democratic will of District residents and their elected leadership is being marginalized and threatened by those who know little about our city and the nearly 650,000 people who call it home.”

Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the D.C. Council, said the ruling was “troubling and poses a serious threat to public safety in the District of Columbia” and vowed to fight for gun safety legislation.

In the wake of the ruling, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., chided Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., for his attempt to roll back gun laws in the District.

“With two people arrested in the last two weeks for bringing guns into the Capitol complex, both of whom were charged under D.C.’s carry law, Representative Massie can no longer hide behind that D.C. law,” she said in a statement. “The only thing standing between guns and the Capitol now is a federal law. Will Rep. Massie be consistent and finally try to overturn a law he has legitimate, direct jurisdiction over?”

Norton said she expects the District to appeal the decision, which goes beyond what the Supreme Court has held. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has upheld the constitutionality of three of the District’s four major gun laws, she pointed out.

Massie told CQ Roll Call he was encouraged by the judge’s decision.

“In fact, his ruling strikes down a provision of the DC Firearms Registration Amendment Act of 2008, which I specifically referenced in the text of my successful amendment on July 16th,” Massie said in an email. “Clearly, Ms. Norton and the Mayor missed the mark when they asserted that my legislative effort to restore a fundamental human right was an overextension of congressional authority.”

He cited Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution as evidence of authority over D.C.’s legislative matters, and said the ruling “re-affirmed my assertion that the peoples’ right to keep and bear arms cannot be denied by any locality or state.”