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Plaintiff In D.C. Gun Ruling Says City Would Be Safer With Concealed Carry

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George Lyon, a D.C. gun owner who has fought the city's restrictions on handguns, lives in Adams Morgan.
NPR
George Lyon, a D.C. gun owner who has fought the city's restrictions on handguns, lives in Adams Morgan.

George Lyon has never been a victim of violent crime in D.C., but he does remember the case of Sharon Moskowitz, the 25-year-old who in 1997 was strangled and killed as she walked into her home on Biltmore Street in Adams Morgan, where Lyon has lived for over two decades.

“I wish she had had the means to protect her life," he says wistfully.

Lyon cites cases like these — random crimes that took the lives of innocent D.C. residents — when he talks about his longstanding advocacy for gun rights in a city that has long been hostile to them. To him, crime is a reality in the city, and letting only the bad guys carry the guns puts the good ones at greater risk.

"Anyone can be a victim of crime in the District. How am I to know whether when I walk out the door today whether I am going to be the victim of a crime, any more than when I drive down the street that I’m going to be involved in an automobile accident or if I am sitting here and the house catches on fire suddenly?" he asks.

"I think society is safer when the bad guys don’t know which good guys have the guns and which good guys don’t," he adds.

Gun laws turned on their head

Lyon, who is an attorney, is a member of the small club of D.C. gun rights activists who have challenged the city's restrictive gun laws over the years. In 2008, he was among the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the city's three-decade-old ban on handgun ownership. A year later, he joined two other residents in filing suit after their requests for permits to carry their handguns outside their homes were denied.

That case was decided in their favor just over a week ago, and during the narrow window between when the ruling came down and when a 90-day stay was granted, Lyon did what he had never done before: he put his handgun in a pocket holster and took it outside with him.

"One of my instructors… calls a firearm an emergency rescue tool, just like a fire extinguisher. You buy a fire extinguisher hoping you never have to use it, and my guns, I hope that I will never have to use them in a lethal force encounter," he says. Lyon owns a handgun, shotgun and rifle, and says he has one of the few legal AR-15s in the city.

Much like the 2008 Heller ruling, July's decision on the D.C.'s ban on carrying guns outside the home has upended the city's gun regulations and unnerved officials, who have yet to say whether they will appeal. Legislators are preparing for the possibility that they'll have to craft a bill allowing residents to carry guns once they return from their summer recess in September. Since 2008, over 3,000 handguns have been registered to residents in D.C.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Council's committee on the judiciary and public safety, thinks that the ruling was clear — and that he and his colleagues will have to pass a bill allowing some carry rights.

"It is likely, in my opinion, that an absolute ban on [carrying guns] is probably not going to pass muster," he says. "So I want to look at the other jurisdictions that have had cases that they’ve dealt with that have withstood challenges. So I'll look at Maryland and I'll look at other states, but it’s likely that we'll have to amend our law."

But how far will those changes go? Lyon, who says he'd like to see both open and concealed carry, is willing to compromise. "My view is that you should be able to open carry or concealed carry as you wish. However, I believe it would it would be constitutional for the District to mandate either open carry or to mandate only concealed carry," he says.

Disagreement on how to move forward

Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence favors a full appeal, but if a bill has to be written, he says it would have to be restrictive due to D.C.’s status as the nation’s capital.

"One of the factors about D.C. that is unique is that there are a number of highly sensitive areas that have to be taken into account in any type of law," he says, echoing an argument made by Wells, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

Lyon doesn't buy this argument. "You don't need to restrict my right to carry a firearm for personal protection when I walk my dog at 3 o’clock in the morning in order to protect the president or the ambassador from Djibouti," he says. He does concede that certain areas — government buildings and schools — will likely remain off-limits to residents carrying guns, but says that there's still a debate to be had over libraries, playgrounds and parks.

He also says that he'd like to see training requirement be written into any law: 16 hours in the classroom and two on the firing range, more than what many states require, he says.

"What I do think would pass constitutional muster is requiring that the gun be registered, requiring training. I think it’s legitimate to have that training, it’s legitimate to require that the training be in things such as conflict avoidance, situational awareness, the moral and ethical decisions in using deadly force, the law of self-defense, firearm functioning, and so forth. From my own standpoint — and some people in the gun rights community are going to disagree with me — I don’t think you should be carrying a firearm unless you are trained," he says.

The 90-day stay expires on Oct. 22, but over the next two weeks city officials will continue to make their case that they be granted a 180-day stay or a stay until an appeal is filed, if it's filed at all.

For Wells, an appeal or a bill allowing carry rights may not be the final say on the issue. The Heller ruling, he argues, left vague how far jurisdictions can go in restricting the right to bear arms, and did not speak to D.C. as potentially being a separate case due to its status as the nation's capital.

"This is going to be a long, tortured future in court for jurisdictions across the country to figure out what this private right to a handgun really means. D.C., unfortunately, has been at the forefront of this," he says.

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