D.C. residents can currently keep handguns in their homes, but a bill to be debated by the D.C. Council would allow them to apply for concealed carry licenses.
Today the D.C. Council will debate a bill that would allow residents to do something they haven't been permitted to do in decades: carry a handgun outside their home.
The bill, jointly authored by Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chair Phil Mendelson, comes in response a late-July ruling in which a federal judge struck down the city's longstanding ban on carrying handguns. The decision left city officials scrambling, and as they await the outcome on a motion asking the judge to reconsider his ruling, legislators are moving on an emergency measure that would allow the Metropolitan Police Department to issue concealed carry licenses for handguns.
You may be wondering how exactly D.C. got here, what the bill says and what it could mean for you. If so, read on — below we summarize the history of handguns in D.C., explain the bill that the Council will consider and even tell you how many handguns have been registered in the city since 2008 — and where they are.
How did we get here?
Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard who sued the District after it rejected his application to keep a handgun at his Capitol Hill home, spoke outside the Supreme Court on June 26, 2008 after it struck down the city's handgun ban. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)
From 1976 to 2008, handgun ownership was banned in D.C. (Rifles and shotguns, along with handguns purchased prior to 1976, were allowed, but only in the homes or businesses of their owners.) In 2008, though, the Supreme Court ruled in the Heller case that the city's total ban on handguns was unconstitutional. It also ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to own a gun, not a collective right as had been the longstanding legal interpretation.
The Heller ruling forced D.C. officials to allow residents to purchase and register handguns for use and storage in their homes. The new rules required a resident seeking to register a handgun to undergo a background check, submit the gun for a ballistics test, take a training class, and wait 10 days between the time of purchase and when they could take possession of the gun.
The registration process hit a roadblock when Charles Sykes, the city's only federally licensed firearms agent — the person who could transfer guns in from other states, since D.C. has no gun stores — went out of business in April 2011. To facilitate gun transfers, in July 2011 Mayor Vincent Gray allow Sykes to operate out of MPD headquarters.
There were also a variety of legal challenges to the new rules. Shortly after the 2008 ruling, Dick Heller, who had filed the original lawsuit resulting in the Supreme Court decision, sued the city over registration requirements, calling them unconstitutional. Two separate courts — in 2010 and 2014 — ruled against him, saying that D.C. was allowed to enact strict rules for the registration of handguns.
In response to complaints from gun owners that the handgun registration requirements were onerous, in 2012 the D.C. Council passed a bill making registration easier by scrapping a required vision test and allowing residents to watch a training video instead of attending a training class.
The recent ruling was born of a 2009 lawsuit filed by D.C. resident Tom Palmer, along with two other D.C. residents, one Maryland resident and a Washington State-based gun rights group over D.C.'s ban on the carrying of handguns outside the home. Palmer said that the Second Amendment protected his right to keep and bear arms outside his home. The case sat in the courts until late-July 2014, when Buffalo, New York-based federal Judge Frederick Scullin ruled that the city's ban on carrying handguns was unconstitutional. He also ordered D.C. police to stop enforcing the existing ban, allowing residents to non-residents alike to carry guns openly or concealed.
Shortly thereafter, though, Scullin stayed his ruling for 90 days. D.C. has asked Scullin to reconsider his ruling, and has also requested a longer stay — either for 180 days or pending a full appeal. Last week, Scullin shot down D.C.'s request for a stay pending appeal, but said he would consider arguments for a long stay. The 90-day stay expires on Oct. 22.
What does the bill say?
The bill the D.C. Council will debate today would allow D.C. residents to carry concealed handguns outside their homes — with a number of caveats.
First off, a concealed carry permit would be issued at the discretion of Police Chief Cathy Lanier, and only to people that demonstrate a "good reason to fear injury to his or her person or property." According to D.C. officials, living in a high-crime neighborhood won't be enough to justify getting a license, but being stalked by someone else would. This is known as a "may-issue" permitting scheme: D.C., like Maryland, may issue a license, but it puts the burden on the applicant to prove that they need it.
Second, residents and non-residents would have to jump through a number of other hoops, including being or qualifying to own and register a handgun, taking 18 hours of classroom and range training, and proving that they do not suffer nor have suffered from a mental illness in the past five years.
Finally, the right to carry a concealed handgun would be strictly limited. Handguns would not be permitted in schools, daycare centers, government buildings, hospitals, bars and restaurants, public transportation (including Metro, Metrobuses and taxicabs), stadiums and arenas, or federal facilities and properties were federal law prohibits carrying guns. License-holders would not be allowed to carry their handguns while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The law also carves out a special area around the White House — between Constitution Avenue and H Street and 15th and 17th streets NW — where handguns would not be permitted. They would also be prohibited within 1,000 feet of the movement of a U.S. or foreign dignitary, though police would have to give notice to allow licensed carriers to leave the area.
There's more: A concealed handgun cannot enter a private residence without the verbal permission of the residence's owner, and for the first 90 days that the law is in effect all businesses will presumed to be areas where concealed handguns are not permitted. After 90 days, each business will have to establish and communicate its own policy.
Licenses would be valid for two years.
What has the reaction been to the bill?
No one on either side of the debate seems happy with the measure. City officials say they would rather see no handguns carried outside the home, but have to comply with the court's ruling. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that tossed out the city's ban are similarly unhappy, saying that the bill is to strict to allow them to actually ever carry their guns outside.
"This bill is a big fail," said George Lyon, one of the plaintiffs, in an interview. He says that it too strictly limits who can carry guns and where they can go, and expects that it will only result in more litigation.
How many guns are there in D.C. anyhow?
According to MPD, over 3,000 handguns have been registered by residents since the 2008 ruling. And per data submitted to WAMU 88.5 by MPD, those handguns have gone to residents in all corners of the city. Based on ZIP codes, 20002 — which encompasses a swath of Northeast and includes the neighborhoods of H Street, Trinidad, NoMa, and Langston-Carver — has the most handguns, 337. It's followed by these ZIP codes:
- 20011 (Petworth, Brightwood, Manor Park): 305
- 20001 (Shaw, Bloomingdale, Pleasant Plains): 225
- 20019 (Benning Ridge, Marshall Heights, Lincoln Heights): 211
- 20020 (Barry Farm, Dupont Park, Skyland): 202
- 20003 (Capitol Hill, Navy Yard ): 197
If the population of the ZIP codes is taken into consideration, 20003 has the most guns — 7.4 per 1,000 residents — followed by 20012 (Colonial Village, Shepherd Park, Takoma) with 7.1, 20002 with 6.2 and 20006 (Farragut West) with 6.2. (See all ZIP codes here.)
This, of course, is only half the story. MPD says that over 12,000 residents are listed as registered gun owners. Part of the discrepancy is that when the 1976 ban went into effect, residents were allowed to register handguns they already owned — but they were never required to re-register them thereafter.
MPD is currently working its way through this list, trying to determine how many of these gun owners are still in the city and may still have the gun they originally registered. Notices have been sent to homes and ads have been placed in The Washington Times (one official said that the department assumed more gun owners read the Times, which historically has leaned right) as a means to encourage these residents to renew their handgun registrations.
If the bill is approved by the Council today, Lanier would have a month to implement the legislation. That means that D.C. residents will likely be able to start requesting concealed carry permits by the time the stay on the Scullin's ruling expire, on Oct. 22.
But because the measure is being considered as an emergency bill — meaning that it can be passed without a public hearing and after only a single vote — it will expire within 90 days, forcing the Council to debate a permanent bill to take its place. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) says that he expects to hold a hearing on the permanent bill by the end of October.
The legal wrangling isn't over, though. Scullin has set an Oct. 17 hearing on D.C.'s request that he reconsider the ruling. Should he ultimately reject it, D.C. could still appeal the ruling. If at any point a court sides with D.C.'s argument that it should be allowed to ban residents from carrying handguns outside their homes, the Council could move to revoke the emergency bill and reimpose the ban.
Of course, more litigation is likely to come. Both Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Alan Gura, the attorney who has fought D.C. on its ban, have said that they expect the emergency bill to end up in court. Gura says that the bill is too restrictive to meet with Scullin's ruling, but Mendelson and Gray say that it balances Second Amendment rights against the city's unique safety challenges.