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D.C. Concealed Carry Fight Could Provoke Congress, Contempt of Court

Paul has fired multiple shots at D.C.'s gun laws. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council will consider a more permanent version of the emergency measure  that revived the city’s long-standing concealed carry law. That bill turned D.C. into a “may-issue jurisdiction,” where authorities have discretion over who may carry and where they are allowed.  

At the same time, a pro-gun lawyer is on a mission to achieve what Second Amendment proponents in Congress have tried to do since the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller ruling: Wipe out the city’s restrictions on carrying handguns.  

Attorney Alan Gura argues the city’s plan for issuing concealed carry permits does not meet the requirements set forth by Judge Frederick Scullin in the July 26 ruling that declared the D.C.’s ban on carrying handguns unconstitutional. Gura has asked the court to hold the city in contempt. “None of the District’s allegedly unique features justify erasing the Second Amendment wholesale throughout the entire city,” Gura stated in court documents filed in November, skewering city officials’ attempts to prohibit carrying guns in the District.  

D.C. is appealing Scullin’s ruling in Palmer v. District of Columbia, while moving forward with the legislation officials argue is designed to balance the interest of public safety in the nation’s capital with individual gun rights. They maintain neither ruling stands for unregulated and absolute carrying of firearms.  

“Both courts recognized that sensible regulation of gun ownership and behavior, designed to protect the public, is within the scope of the Second Amendment, with some provisos,” said D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents Capitol Hill's Ward 6, during a Nov. 25 hearing. As chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, Wells and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson have taken the lead on the gun law.  

If Heller serves as a guide, there may be a flurry of firearm activity in Congress once the court resolves the dispute. A few months after that 2008 ruling, a vulnerable freshman Democrat from Mississippi introduced a bill to loosen and overturn many gun restrictions in D.C. Former Rep. Travis Childers' legislation was strongly supported by the National Rifle Association and cleared the House by a 266-152 vote, but did not pass the Senate.  

During consideration of a bill to give D.C. voting rights, ex-Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., revived the proposal as an amendment. It was adopted as part of the Senate legislation, which passed the chamber but ultimately died — in part because of concerns about the pro-gun language.  

More recently, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has fired multiple shots at the city's gun laws, although he has indicated an openness to defer to home rule . During the last Congress, he filed amendments to overturn District gun laws during consideration of a budget autonomy bill. Ultimately, those provisions killed the bill. This summer, Paul introduced  an amendment related to firearms in D.C. that helped sink a bipartisan hunting and fishing bill.  

Paul also pledged support  for an appropriations rider  introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., that would have made D.C. among the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the nation. Massie's amendment passed the House, but it was excluded from the final spending deal.  

Massie celebrated Scullin's ruling this summer, and suggested D.C. should look to states that allow the open carrying of a handgun without any license or permit when crafting a new law. He also rejected the idea that D.C. has a unique need to limit where people can carry handguns, telling CQ Roll Call, “Did the leaders of the city not understand that criminals are out there right now with guns when the motorcades go by?”  

Despite what pro-gun lawmakers say, District officials maintain they have a duty to protect members of Congress and other high-profile targets from people carrying concealed weapons.  

"Symbolically, we stand out with so many targets like the White House, the Monument or the Capitol," Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in testimony to the council on the bill. "That backdrop stands out for people who want to do harm to the United States government."  

Proposed changes from the emergency legislation, unanimously approved by the D.C. Council on Sept. 23, include a language for situations unique to the District, such as the movements of members of Congress and other dignitaries through the District and large-scale demonstrations.

Though guns are prohibited from the Capitol grounds under federal and local law, officials want to protect other popular points for protest. Guns would be barred in areas where law enforcement agencies have posted officers or parked vehicles along a perimeter. One amendment, added at the request of the Secret Service, prohibits carrying on the Naval Observatory grounds, where the vice president resides.

There are at least 14 sensitive locations and circumstances where carrying would be banned, and other changes related to the bars and restaurants that serve alcohol could be coming Tuesday, Mendelson said during a Monday briefing. The city wants to keep its restrictive gun culture in place, despite the challenges.

Gura's motion to hold D.C. in contempt may rest, in part, on the fate of the appeal. It could move the case to the U.S. Appeals Court and out of Scullin's jurisdiction, according to city attorneys.

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