D.C. set to relax gun laws, hesitantly
Move would ease registry hurdles
A bill that cuts training sessions and other impediments to registering a gun in the District is expected to pass, perhaps unanimously, when it goes before the entire D.C. Council in coming weeks.
But its auspicious path to law is peculiar in one respect — city lawmakers may not oppose the measure, but they aren’t about to sing its praises or say much about it at all, even if restrictive gun laws in the District were the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case and loomed large in a recent pitch for D.C. statehood.
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, introduced the Firearms Amendment Act of 2012 to fix stumbling blocks that made it difficult for residents to meet pre-registration requirements within the city’s borders. Even as the bill heads to the council’s agenda Tuesday, Mr. Mendelson noted his colleagues may not have delved into the subject — it is viewed as highly technical — as much as gun advocates outside of the John A. Wilson Building.
“It’s not so much they don’t have experience in relaxing gun laws,” he said Thursday. “The council doesn’t have experience with it at all.”
The Committee on the Judiciary, of which Mr. Mendelson is chairman, forwarded the bill to the full council on Wednesday with a 3-0 vote of approval, noting the reforms do not eliminate the District’s tough registration laws or its ban on automatic weapons.
Committee member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said his grudging approval was part of the plan all along.
“If Phil says this is what we’ve got to do, then this is what we’re going to do,” Mr. Evans said Thursday.
Committee member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, was unable to attend the markup but said she would have approved it, despite “some reser-
vations” over the argument that classroom training and ballistics tests were ineffectual.
“Do we throw out what we have or find a way to do it better?” she said.
Under the bill, gun registrants will watch a video in lieu of classroom and range training and still take a onetime test on safety and gun laws. It also eliminates a vision test and most restrictions on types of ammunition.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said she is leery of making it easier to obtain a gun in the District. She will support the bill “as long as there are some safeguards in place, but I want to make sure there is a training component.”
It may seem unusual for the city’s lawmakers — hardly a pro-gun group — to make registration simpler, but the body needs to respect individual rights, council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said Thursday. He does not expect any formal opposition to the bill among his colleagues.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray also supports Mr. Mendelson’s bill.
If enacted, the legislation should please firearms enthusiasts and members of Congress who frequently point to the District’s stringent gun laws as an affront to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, despite city officials’ concerns about urban crime and attacks on elite politicians and diplomats who frequent the nation’s capital.
The law would also put the District more in line with other jurisdictions’ gun laws and with the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark 2008 ruling that struck down the city’s long-standing ban on handguns as unconstitutional.
Loosening D.C. gun laws will also, at least in theory, aid the District’s pitch for budget autonomy or full voting rights on Capitol Hill. But some say the reforms do not go far enough to make a tangible impact.
Conservative lawmakers on the Hill are not shy about their all-or-nothing stance on the Second Amendment. In recent months, Republican House members mulled a plan to let people carry a concealed firearm in the District — a practice that is strictly forbidden in the city — if they hold an outof-state permit.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, and chairman of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on D.C. affairs, said through a spokesman Thursday that the “right to arm and defend oneself is fundamental and does not change because one happens to transverse a city or state boundary.”
And in New Hampshire, state legislators told D.C. officials lobbying for statehood in January that curbs on gun ownership simply do not jibe with their “Live Free or Die” ideals.
“Often when people don’t like something, they will grasp at excuses,” Mr. Mendelson said. “I frankly think [the bill] will not have much of an effect.”