Updated 7:30 p.m. | Though they won’t yet say how far they are willing to take their fight, District of Columbia officials plan to do everything in their power to limit the carrying of handguns in the nation’s capital, arguing that despite a court's ruling that paves the way for more permissive laws, Washington is a unique place with heightened security concerns.
“An absolute ban on [carrying handguns] may not pass constitutional muster regardless of the judge, so we’re going to prepare by working on legislation that will pass muster” said Tommy Wells, a Democrat who represents Capitol Hill on the D.C. Council.
As chairman of the Council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Wells will play a key role in D.C.’s response to the July 26 ruling by Judge Frederick Scullin Jr. that declared the complete ban on carrying handguns in public unconstitutional. The court granted a stay of the ruling Tuesday, giving District officials 90 days to figure out how they will protect public safety while complying with the Constitution. “We have to have a smart bill ready to go, and we can’t be in denial about this,” Wells said in a Wednesday interview. He offered Maryland’s permit law as an example. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the state can require people applying for concealed-carry handgun permits to provide a “good and substantial reason” reason for wanting to carry.
“As restrictive as possible,” is the suggestion of D.C. Councilmember David Catania, a Republican-turned-independent who is running for mayor. He said the implications of the ruling are "very, very concerning."
"Right now, our top priority must be public safety. I will continue to work with Chairman [Phil] Mendelson and my colleagues to determine next steps," said Councilmember Muriel Bowser, Democratic nominee for mayor, in an email to CQ Roll Call "At the end of the day, we must strike the right balance between responsible gun ownership and protecting residents and visitors in the nation's capital."
Mayor Vincent Gray and his administration were still evaluating whether they would appeal the decision, but they say the stay — in effect until Oct. 22 — gives the city enough breathing room to figure out a strategy.
During a downtown news conference on Wednesday, Gray said he was working with public safety and law enforcement officials to "now really try to ascertain what all the ramifications of this ruling are.” That was "not entirely clear" for those who read the 19-page ruling in Palmer v. District of Columbia, the mayor said.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she got “unofficial word that the law had been banned” at 9 p.m. on July 26, a Saturday night, and then faced the challenge of “trying to inform a 5,000-person department that polices 24 hours a day, seven days a week" of the ramifications.
“There are lots of federal and local law enforcement folks that are allowed to be armed, that are out there in plain clothes and off duty that we encounter every day," she said, “so it's not that we're not used to encountering people who are in fact armed — that's not a big shift for us.”
If they choose to appeal, the D.C. attorney general’s office believes it has unique and powerful arguments to make about why a ban on carrying is necessary.
“There's no court — the Supreme Court or any court in this city — that has put out a ruling that is operative that our current law does not survive," said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the attorney general.
“We are the seat of the federal government,” he said. “We have dignitaries and other federal officials who are subject to constant death threats. We've had actual assassinations and assassination attempts using firearms in this city. We are a unique place."
Capitol Hill is one of the areas local officials indicated they want to protect.
Demonstrators could come to the city “armed to the gills,” Cantania said in an interview. He said there is no telling what might happen when tempers are running high on the many international and domestic policies regularly debated in the halls of Congress. Catania said allowing people to carry handguns “intimidates another very important constitutional right, which is free speech.”
Wells said protecting members of Congress, staff and their families is "an obligation." In response to Republican efforts to dismantle D.C.'s gun laws, Wells said, "if Congress decides no, they have to the power to change it."
The man leading the charge in the House, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., taunted local leaders from the floor of the chamber about the impact of the judge’s ruling.
“Did gun-toting tourists commence to shoot-outs?” he asked rhetorically on Tuesday, three days after the judge's order. “Did residents cower in their homes? Did vigilante posses maraud about the city? Did politicians revert to dueling at 10 paces? No, none of these things are happening. History will show the streets are safer today as more law-abiding residents and visitors are armed.”
Massie, a chief supporter of a House-passed proposal that opponents said would make D.C. one of the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the nation, said that contrary to “apocryphal warnings from D.C. leaders, no one is panicked — except for the city's leaders.”
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