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Ruling Against D.C.'s Gun Law Sends Local Officials Scrambling


Police in Washington, D.C. are no longer arresting people for carrying handguns in public. The nation's capital once had a total ban on handguns. That was overturned six years ago by the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling on the Second Amendment. Still, the city continued to exercise some limits on guns. But now a lower court has upended one of those limits, as Patrick Madden of member station WAMU reports.

PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: In his ruling, Judge Frederick J. Scullin said the issue was not even difficult. The District of Columbia's blanket prohibition on carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional. The ruling appeared to catch officials in D.C. off-guard. Lawyers for the city scrambled to figure out how to respond. The police department rushed out new guidelines to its officers, ordering them to not arrest people carrying registered handguns outside their homes. And local lawmakers will now likely be called back from summer recess to rewrite the gun laws in case a potential appeal of the ruling falls short. Mary Cheh is a member of the city council, which passed the law banning handguns in public. She says D.C. has special requirements.

MARY CHEH: We have, obviously, the capital of the United States. We have all of the federal buildings. We have all of the dignitaries. We have all of the embassies. We have a situation, certainly post 9/11, where the heightened concern about people with guns on the street is extraordinary.

MADDEN: And D.C. lawmakers point to history to back up their argument. In a statement, the city council chairman wrote that four U.S. presidents have been assassinated; five others have been shot at. The right to carry a gun in public, the city argues, must be restricted more heavily in D.C. than anywhere else. Once again, council member Mary Cheh.

CHEH: We are Mecca for people who have grievances and want to air them. And that's perfectly fine. And, you know, we revel in that, that this is where they come. But some people come here with grievances, and they have darker purposes.

MADDEN: But the attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against D.C., Alan Gura, said that line of reasoning doesn't make much sense.

ALAN GURA: That's a silly argument. The fact of the matter is that every city in America has important installations, foreign consulates, the president; members of Congress visit every state in the union. And the gun laws don't change when important people are in town. You know who else is important are the people who live and work in Washington, D.C. And they're important enough to be able to deserve to enjoy their constitutional rights.

MADDEN: Gura says while there can and should be restrictions on guns in sensitive places, a complete ban on carrying handguns is unfair. The long-term implications of the latest ruling are unclear. Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University says D.C.'s law banning pretty much anyone from carrying handguns in public appears unique. So this legal battle is unlikely to directly affect other cities and states.

JONATHAN TURLEY: However, each of these losses for cities are not welcomed. Many cities like Chicago and New York and Baltimore are trying to find ways to thread the needle, to create reasonable limitations. When the District comes plowing in with these types of extreme arguments and when they get this type of negative ruling, it doesn't help those cities.

MADDEN: The attorney general for D.C. filed a motion with Judge Scullin late yesterday asking for an immediate stay of his ruling to give the city time to respond. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Madden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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