D.C. Gun Laws Ruled Unconstitutional, Again

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The nation’s capital is not having a good summer.

Just weeks after Congress tried to overturn a few of D.C.’s laws, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that the city’s ban on carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the second time that a court has overturned a D.C. gun law in the past six years. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the district’s 32-year-old ban on private handgun ownership was unconstitutional in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller. This was the first time that the Supreme Court had ever stated that the Second Amendment guaranteed gun ownership for every American. For D.C., it meant the city had to rewrite their gun laws.

These new laws allowed residents to keep registered handguns in their home and required gun owners to obtain a permit before carrying in public. However, the city had a policy of refusing to issue any of these permits. This amounted to a de facto ban on handguns in public. Authors of the law argued that D.C.’s status as the nation’s capital gave it reason enough to ban handguns, since they would put the many federal buildings, government officials, and memorials at risk. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier put it this way at a hearing in January:

The District of Columbia, as the seat of the Federal government, with its multitude of critical official and symbolic buildings, monuments, and events, and high-profile public officials traversing the streets every day, is a city filled with ‘sensitive’ places. Our laws should reflect that reality.

This reasoning did not fly with Senior District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. Heller and a similar ruling in Chicago gave Scullin enough precedent to strike down the ban. Chicago attempted to ban the sale of firearms within city limits. U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang found this law to be unconstitutional. Chang was not convinced that banning the sale of firearms would reduce gun violence.

What’s next?

D.C. will appeal this ruling, and they have reason to be confident. In 2012, a U.S. District Court struck down a Maryland law which only issued carry permits to individuals who could provide a “good and substantial reason” for carrying a firearm outside of the home. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this ruling one year later. This provides an important precedent for proponents of the D.C. ban. There are reasonable restrictions that can be placed on an American’s right to carry a firearm in public. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said as much in his majority opinion in Heller:

The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

While the court ruled in 2008 that citizens are allowed to own firearms, it added that restrictions on such ownership were not unconstitutional. Specifically, Scalia’s majority opinion argued that “the carrying of firearms in sensitive places” can be forbidden. It might be a stretch to claim that the entire District of Columbia is a “sensitive place,” but at least D.C. has a leg to stand on.

In the meantime, how will this ruling impact D.C. residents?

The D.C. Attorney General has requested a stay, but one has not yet been granted. This means that, for now, it is legal to carry a handgun in the nation’s capital. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has instructed officers to not arrest anyone holding a registered handgun. Those visiting D.C. who have a carry permit from another state will also be allowed to carry their handgun.

As frustrating and frightening as it is to see a judge allow any Joe Schmo to carry a gun in a city that is home to so many important people and high-profile targets, the city should have seen this coming, especially in the wake of Heller. To respond to a court’s rejection of your strict gun ban with another strict gun ban is foolish, and claiming that an entire city is a “sensitive place” is laughable. Yes, many parts of D.C. are home to federal buildings, but there are large areas of D.C. that look like any other city. There are shopping centers, grocery stores, apartment complexes, and everything else that makes a city a city. There are also threats to the safety of the average citizen, and D.C. residents have the constitutional right to defend themselves from those threats with a gun.

For the safety of D.C. residents, Mayor Vincent Gray and the city council need to approve new and sensible gun laws that balance the need to protect our government officials with the right of all D.C. residents to defend themselves. Banning or allowing guns everywhere in the city are not viable options.

Eric Essagof (@ericmessagof) is a student at The George Washington University majoring in Political Science. He writes about how decisions made in DC impact the rest of the country. He is a Twitter addict, hip-hop fan, and intramural sports referee in his spare time. Contact Eric at

Featured image courtesy of [Robert Nelson via Flickr]

Eric Essagof
Eric Essagof attended The George Washington University majoring in Political Science. He writes about how decisions made in DC impact the rest of the country. He is a Twitter addict, hip-hop fan, and intramural sports referee in his spare time. Contact Eric at



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