By: Alex Baptiste
With lawyers, lobbyists, and politicos at every turn, DC is a city very accustomed to debates. An individual’s right to bear arms and the appropriate reach of the Second Amendment has always been a source of great contention, particularly in the last few years. Following the tragic Newtown shooting, President Obama called on Congress to implement stricter gun laws and amplify background checks necessary to obtain a permit. While all eyes have been on the nation’s capital in the hopes of stricter laws, DC may be moving in the opposite direction. Earlier this month, a federal court held that DC’s principal gun control law, which bans permit holders from carrying a concealed weapon in public places, to be an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The case, Palmer v. District of Columbia, was brought by four residents of DC and the Second Amendment Foundation, Inc. against the city and DC Chief of Police Cathy Lanier. The plaintiffs allege that their Second Amendment rights were infringed upon by the city’s general refusal to issue permits allowing citizens of DC to carry their handguns in public.
While DC residents in possession of a permit were permitted to own handguns and keep them in their houses, carrying the weapon in public was prohibited without being issued a permit. However, DC was reluctant to issue the permits, citing case-specific reasons each time. Relying on District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 Supreme Court decision declaring that the Second Amendment extends a right to all individuals to keep firearms in their homes, Judge Frederick Scullin ordered the city to end its prohibition against carrying a concealed handgun in public.
A motion to stay the decision was filed by the city and Police Chief Lanier and was granted. The application of the new ruling will be stayed for 90 days to allow the police department to implement new procedures for incorporating this new requirement. The stay also allows the city time to prepare its appeal of the decision.
In a city that plays host to some of the country’s strictest gun laws, the ruling was nothing short of a surprise. While there is the fear that this ruling will open the door to universal carry laws, it also raises general safety concerns and opens old wounds given the city’s recent history with gun violence. Less than a year ago the city was stunned by a mass shooting at the Navy Yard that killed 13 people including the gunman. No, a handgun is not the same as a semi-automatic weapon, but with other incidents occurring around the country involving handguns carried in public, it is foreseeable that a ruling such as this would raise one’s concerns when walking down the street.
The Navy Yard shooting was not the first time DC was shocked by civilian gun-violence. In June 2009, an elderly white supremacist walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum and opened fire, claiming the life of a security guard. In a city grounded in conflicting opinions, it is not a farfetched concern that violence may become an unwelcome source of conflict resolution.
Washington, DC is not your typical city. It does not have the bright lights of New York or the sunny beaches of San Diego. What it lacks in Disneyland attractions, however, it makes up for in history and political glamour. In 2012, over 18 million tourists made their way through the nation’s capitol, visiting museums, monuments, restaurants, participating in the annual Cherry Blossom festival, and enjoying the incredible attractions that this city has to offer. In 2013, it was estimated that nearly 647,000 people called DC home. With over a half million residents and an enormous volume of tourists traveling the streets, its easy to understand why allowing guns to be carried in public would put some on edge.
Outside of the number of residents and tourists, it cannot be ignored that Washington, DC is also home to members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, high-ranking administrative officials, and the President of the United States. It is the political hub of our nation where Representatives and tourists walk past each other on the sidewalks and power players lunch daily amongst the fancy restaurants of K Street. It’s where those with the power to decide the direction of our nation roam free. This new law amplifies the pressure of the city’s police department, as well as the Capitol Hill Police, to be more alert than ever of any potential threats that may arise from a permit holding citizen freely exercising their right to carry a handgun in public.
Capitol Hill Police faced a major judgment call in October 2013 when a Connecticut woman rammed her car into the front gates of the White House. After the crash, the driver proceeded to speed through town towards the Capitol building, killing one police officer in the process and endangering the lives of unsuspecting pedestrians. The incident ultimately ended when the driver was killed after police opened fire. Capitol Hill police were criticized for their use of guns in trying to stop the woman. If this new ruling is upheld, it is not unfathomable to imagine a repeat situation where it is not just the Capitol Hill police acting but also DC citizens taking the law into their own hands and “helping” to end the danger.
With the motion to stay granted, DC’s laws remain the same – at least for the next 90 days. Alan Gura, counsel for the plaintiffs, feels that the ruling is “a fantastic improvement in public safety.” Whether this is the case remains to be seen and is sure to be debated – in typical DC fashion.