D.C. to vote on gun law

July 14, 2008 5:32:02 PM PDT
The District of Columbia Council planned to vote Tuesday on emergency legislation to allow handguns if they are used only for self-defense in the home and carry fewer than 12 rounds of ammunition. The legislation announced Monday comes as officials scramble to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month striking down the city's 32-year-old ban.

The proposal, which maintains some of the city's strict gun ownership rules and adds more regulations, was immediately criticized by gun rights advocates threatening more legal action.

The nation's capital would still require all legal firearms - including handguns, rifles and shotguns - to be kept in the home unloaded and disassembled, or equipped with trigger locks. There would be an exception for guns used against the "reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm."

The proposed legislation also maintains the city's unusual ban of machine guns, defined as weapons that shoot at least 12 rounds without reloading. That applies to most semiautomatic firearms.

"We have crafted what I believe to be a model for the nation in terms of complying with the Supreme Court's Second Amendment decision and at the same time protecting our citizens," interim Attorney General Peter Nickles said.

The National Rifle Association strongly disagreed.

"Clearly, D.C. is doing everything they can to ignore the Supreme Court ruling," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. He said the organization would pursue legal or legislative action to thwart the city's efforts.

The legislation also would require a ballistics test to determine if a handgun is stolen or has been used in a crime. Police Chief Cathy Lanier will limit registration to one handgun per person for the first 90 days to make sure as many people are served as possible. And those who wish to register a handgun must pass written and vision tests.

Residents who already own handguns will be granted six months of amnesty to legally register their weapons, officials said.

The emergency legislation, which has strong support from the council, will remain in effect for 90 days. It adopts many of the regulations proposed earlier this month by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson.

Mendelson, who is chairman of the committee on public safety and the judiciary, said the council would hold a hearing in September on permanent regulations.

D.C. officials anticipate more legal challenges as they try to maintain the strictest gun regulations possible under the law.

Critics were frustrated that the city plans to keep its ban on firearms capable of carrying 12 rounds or more. Alan Gura, the lawyer who successfully argued against D.C.'s handgun ban before the Supreme Court, has said such a restriction "almost certainly will be challenged."

The NRA's Cox also derided the trigger-lock requirement. "Unless a criminal is calling you before they break into your house, you're going to be left in the same position you were prior to the (Supreme Court) case," he said.

Because the district has no licensed gun shops, residents who wish to purchase handguns will initially have to travel to shops elsewhere, such as Maryland or Virginia. They would have to present the shop with a certified police form authorizing the dealer to ship the weapon to a federally licensed gun dealer in Washington, where the buyer would pick it up.

There is currently only one licensed firearms dealer in D.C. who can handle such a transaction, said Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Washington field division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"That's a lot to ask one person to do," Campbell said. "He's going to be inundated at the very beginning, I would imagine."