Law Lets Members Keep Firearms in Hill Offices

Posted May 20, 2005 at 6:30pm

Arriving on Capitol Hill from Austin in 1993, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) discovered she would be unable to keep the firearm she had always maintained in her home.

Faced with a longstanding District of Columbia regulation that essentially bans handguns within the city limits, the Texan dismantled her gun, placed it in a travel case and returned it to her home state.

“I have always had a handgun in the drawer next to my bed,” Hutchison explained during a Thursday press conference to introduce legislation that would would repeal the District’s gun ban.

But despite the ban, it turns out there is one place in the District where Hutchison could have kept her firearm: her Capitol Hill office.

Although the D.C. prohibition against firearms was put into place in 1975, under a provision in federal law, Members of Congress and their staffs are in essence given the right to bear arms on Capitol grounds.

According to Capitol Police Board regulations established in 1967, Members and their aides are allowed to transport firearms on the Capitol grounds in the course of carrying out their official duties provided the weapons are “unloaded and securely wrapped.” (Directives published in recent years also state that staff must be verified by Capitol Police.)

Although the regulations expressly prohibit weapons on the floor of either chamber, as well as in the adjacent lobbies, cloakrooms and galleries, individual Members are allowed to “maintain firearms within the confines of [their] office.”

A Hutchison spokesman said Friday that the Senator had not considered housing a firearm in her Hill office, noting that to transport the weapon, the Texan would be in violation of District law.

“She would never break the law in D.C. knowingly,” said spokesman Chris Paulitz.

Under the the D.C. Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, it is illegal to transport a handgun into the District, and possession of a firearm is a felony, although police officers and military personnel are exempt.

While Capitol Police do arrest visitors for violating the D.C. firearms prohibition, a department spokesman said officers are not required to prosecute Members and staff under the same law because police board regulations allow them to possess an unloaded, secured weapon on the Congressional grounds.

“This is to differentiate between a non-Congressional staff member bringing in a weapon or a firearm to the Capitol complex since it is illegal to have a firearm anywhere in the District of Columbia,” said Officer Michael Lauer, a department spokesman.

It is not unusual for visitors who violate the District’s prohibition to be unfamiliar with the law, Lauer added. “Many times the person is not aware of the laws of D.C. and it just happens that they have a firearm on them, and when they do realize they alert our officers and let them know.”

But Congressional law enforcement officers will also arrest Hill staff who violate the Capitol Police guidelines, Lauer noted.

In 1997, Capitol Police arrested an aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when an officer discovered a shotgun in the staffer’s car.

Officials arrested the aide because the shotgun was loaded, in clear violation of the Capitol Police guidelines.

Capitol Police declined to address whether Hutchison’s legislation would impact security procedures on the Hill.

“It’s our position not to comment on any pending or proposed legislation,” Lauer said.

The bill, which mirrors legislation sponsored in the House by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), would allow District residents to maintain firearms in their homes.

Hutchison said the legislation is necessary to allow citizens to protect themselves, asserting that residents are rendered “utterly defenseless” under the existing law.

“Law-abiding citizens of D.C. ought to have the right to protect themselves and their families on their own property,” said Hutchison, who later stated that she would obtain a gun if the legislation is signed into law.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) and other city officials shunned the legislation, however, calling the effort an attack on the city’s home rule.

“Like the other 50 states, the District knows what firearm regulations work best for its residents,” Williams said in a statement. He urged Congressional lawmakers to drop the issue.

Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), who lobbies for statehood and voting rights as part of the District’s three-member Shadow delegation, similarly criticized the proposal.

“I’ll take Sen. Hutchison’s commitment to the constitutional right to target practice more seriously if she was concerned about my constitutional right to vote,” Strauss said.

CORRECTION:
Capitol Police arrested an aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in 1997 when an officer discovered an shotgun in a staffer’s vehicle. At the time of the incident, the shotgun was unloaded and stored in a case in the vehicle’s trunk, along with ammunition and duck hunting decoys. This was incorrectly reported in Monday’s article “Law Lets Members Keep Firearms in Hill Offices.” The aide later pleaded guilty to possession of unregistered ammunition, and officials dropped an initial charge of possession of an unregistered firearm.