Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

D.C. Tries To Finesse Gun Ruling

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his feisty attorney general, Peter Nickles, stood on the steps of the Wilson Building this week ostensibly to announce how the city will comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of Washington's ban on handguns. But really, they were delivering very much the opposite message: With only the narrowest of exceptions, we're sticking with our gun ban. Don't like it? Sue us.

"I am pretty confident that the people of the District of Columbia want us to err in the direction of trying to restrict guns," Fenty told me, smiling broadly at the suggestion that what he's really trying to do is make it as hard as possible for Washingtonians to keep a loaded gun at home.

Fenty and Nickles reject any interpretation of the Supreme Court decision as a clear statement that Americans may, with very few exceptions, keep and bear what Justice Antonin Scalia called "the quintessential self-defense weapon," the handgun. Rather, the D.C. officials read the decision as an almost academic ruling that although there may be a constitutional right to bear arms to protect yourself, that right is pretty much limited to folks whose house is being broken into right this very second.

The Court ruled that there is "no doubt" that "the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms." But Nickles said "it's clear the Supreme Court didn't intend for you to have a loaded gun around the house. I don't think the court thought this was going to become a Wild West scene."

So the mayor and the D.C. Council are enacting emergency law setting up a cumbersome mechanism by which someone who wants to own a gun legally may register a weapon if they clear a background check, pass a vision test and a written test of gun safety knowledge, pay a fee and wait for the bureaucracy to push through all these steps. "There are circumstances where it could take months," Police Chief Cathy Lanier conceded, and you could almost hear the elected officials around her emitting "heh-hehs" of mischievous delight.

Even then, D.C. gun owners would be prohibited from keeping their gun loaded unless they could demonstrate that the firearm is "being used against a reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm."

What does that mean? "Somebody's approaching your home," Nickles offered. Or "an actual threat by somebody you believe is out to hurt you."

How about if there's been a break-in next door? That's close, the attorney general said.

The District is rejecting the most common reading of the court's 5-4 ruling, the idea that although government is permitted to regulate access to guns -- barring, for example, felons and the mentally ill -- Americans have the right to arm themselves against any threat, basically however they may define it.

"I don't think they intended that anybody who had a vague notion of a threat should have access to a gun," Fenty told me.

The District is out to prove that the Supreme Court's is not the last word. In truth, on the most divisive constitutional questions, the court only reframes the nation's debate. Scalia's majority opinion deliberately avoided getting into the particulars of the D.C. gun regulation scheme -- an engraved invitation to all parties to flood the courts with litigation.

Judging from opinion surveys over the years, Fenty is surely right that D.C. residents would like to restore their old gun ban. But these matters are not decided by plebiscite. Even if city lawyers believe there's a smidgeon of a chance that some court might let the District impose singularly tight restrictions on the right to bear arms, the course of this last lawsuit demonstrates that, ultimately, the city would lose.

But those on both sides who relish the prospect of years and years of litigation are not likely to have such fun. Congress, still reveling over its latest stomp on any stirrings of democracy in the District, is gearing up for another go. If they can impose a new fare system on the city's taxicabs, the lords of the Hill will think nothing of nullifying whatever gun regulations Fenty and the council create.

Already, members of Congress are pumping out news releases and lining up cable talk spots so they can present themselves in an election year as saviors of Americans' gun rights. With Republicans smelling blood and Democrats quivering in the corner over the possibility that they might be portrayed as soft on gun rights, this is yet another issue that will end up as a reminder that democracy and the District are wholly separate concepts.

Fenty and the council put on a nice show of defiance, but in the end, Congress will demonstrate once again just how little say Washington residents have in their own governance.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential"at

By Marc Fisher |  July 17, 2008; 9:03 AM ET
Previous: Nannying Nannies in Montgomery | Next: You Be The Editor


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Adrian Fenty and the anti-arms folks sound eerily like the anti-civil rights folks of the '60. Defenseless residents now, defenseless residents tomorrow, defenseless residents forever!!

Posted by: Super225 | July 17, 2008 12:13 PM

I get the feeling that Fenty and Nickles want to establish a modified "Barney Fife" rule of self defense -- you may carry one round of ammunition in your shirt pocket AS LONG AS you remain in your home AND the gun is locked up somewhere out of ready reach.

Posted by: Dave | July 17, 2008 1:46 PM

Freedom of assembly and speech have been defined as limited freedoms by 219 years of case law, but imagine if it was required to pass a background check, vision test, written test, and payment of fees before the exercise of an individual, inalienable right to peacefully assemble and speech were required.

The individual rights listed in the Bill or Rights explicitly protect the minority or individual against the majority. Thankfully, this is a land where the rule of law is superior to the role of a mob, due largely to our founders abhorrence of constitutional democracy. If Fenty et al. have no respect for the rights of the individual, then I welcome action by Congress to restore freedom over tyranny.

Posted by: Leesburger | July 17, 2008 1:49 PM

I suspect the children acting like elected leaders in DC are about to get their rear ends spanked by the adults in Congress. Or at least we can hope that will be the case.

Posted by: No Children Allowed | July 17, 2008 8:18 PM

""the quintessential self-defense weapon,"
Insert "best office is a..." cliche here

"But these matters are not decided by plebiscite."
Elected officials only have a temporary exemption from Plebe status.

"How about if there's been a break-in next door?"

With very few exceptions, break-ins happen while the residence is empty. You read the crime stats. You know this is true. Why give criminals an additional shopping option?

"the lords of the Hill will think nothing of nullifying whatever gun regulations Fenty and the council create."
Ah, that would be an unlikely justice. It'll be a cold day before they expose themselves to a situation where they must walk the streets or step out of their pied-à-terres and have to wonder the guy on the corner is some nutjob separatist/supremacist from Texas/Montana. DC attracts those, as can be seen on the streets and in WP's comment section...

Posted by: Reports of the sky falling are greatly exaggerated | July 17, 2008 10:10 PM

And we should not forget: The Supremes did more than throw out the handgun ban. They also threw out the requirement that guns must be either locked or disassembled.

The majority opinion stated that having locks made the firearms ineffective as defensive tools, so they ruled that the law requiring locks was also unconstitutional.

And our wonderful DC government has come right back with this new law that basically says: "We don't care what the Supreme Court says. We will do things how we like. Sue us. Even if you win (it will take another 30 years) we will write another illegal law and wait for you to sue us again."

Nice example for the kids to live by Mr. Mayor. Thanks. That will make us parents' jobs a lot easier.

Tell ya what: If somebody breaks into my house while I'm asleep I will use the Glock and empty as many rounds into them as I can. If you charge me with a crime I will sue the crap out of the DC Government and will end up rich when you settle out of court.

Posted by: DC Voter | July 18, 2008 8:23 AM

It's worth noting that the District is now advantaging illegal gun owners. If you owned a gun illegally while the ban is in effect, DC now has a procedure in place to get it registered. If you obeyed the gun ban but now want to buy one, the District is shutting you out.

Posted by: Tom T. | July 18, 2008 10:28 AM

Hey, DC Voter? When's the last time someone broke into an occupied house in whatever neighborhood you live in? I'll wait for the answer, thanks. While I wait for you to figure out how to access local crime stats/details (which are published daily), I'll just note that the last time someone killed themselves with their own gun in my 'hood was also this week.
Oh, and the last time someone waited 'till the owners left before breaking in and robbing a house in my 'hood was, you guessed it, this week.

Posted by: Reports of the sky, again | July 18, 2008 9:26 PM

Sad to say, but the DC government's policy boils down to criminals can have all the guns they want, and law abiding citizens can have none. Further, and as troubling as this sounds, black criminals can have guns and law abiding black and white citizens cannot. Why do I say "black"? When's the last time a white person who wasn't a police officer shot someone in DC? Hinckley in 81? I heard a DC govt official today on Kojo Nnamde's radio talking about how he would not favor a gun store in Ward 8, because that's a high-crime area. Clearly the criminals don't need a gun store, and even though law abiding citizens could certainly go to other parts of the city to purchase legal weapons, his motive seemed to be to keep legal guns out of the hands of law abiding Ward 8 citizens. I like my law abiding fellow humans in Ward 8, and I want them to be armed if they so desire. DC gun law is racist.

Posted by: thepenismightier | July 19, 2008 5:01 AM

Whom ever sues the city, sue for millions of dollar in punative damages. The only thing that people listen to is the pocket book. I hope they loose big.
Oh, by the way, there was a time in our history that a certain race was against another race being active in the political process. Point is that, this too was the will of the people and the majority.

Posted by: Joey K. | July 19, 2008 7:28 PM

this ban only allows revolvers for law abiding ctizens.the criminals arm up with any thing they can get for a $50.00 on the street.
as the tax base drops only criminal element will be left.
or purchase out of state and keep your trap shut.

Posted by: tommy | July 20, 2008 8:27 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company