D.C. laws prohibit the manufacture of guns and ban the possession of "ghost guns." Gun advocates say both those laws are unconstitutional.
Gun advocates say in a new federal lawsuit that D.C.'s prohibition of "ghost guns" and restrictions on the manufacturing of guns from kits are unconstitutional infringements on the Second Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by three gun-owning residents. The plaintiffs include Dick Heller, whose challenge of the city's longstanding handgun ban almost two decades ago led to the Supreme Court's landmark 2008 decision affirming that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to own a gun.
In the lawsuit, Heller says his desire to build a 9mm handgun out of a kit purchased from a gun seller in North Carolina earlier this year has been stymied by D.C.'s prohibition on the manufacture of guns, which he likens to "[banning] the act of publishing one's own words."
And along with two other residents — Andrew Hanson and Elby Godwin — Heller similarly argues that the city's 18-month-old ban on "ghost guns" is vague and overbroad. The ban was enacted last year to target untraceable guns built from kits, but the lawsuit claims that its wording potentially criminalizes the possession of "a vast array of popular, common handguns that it regularly allows residents to register, including the very handgun it issues to its police officers."
"One might think that after repeated losses in the courts, the District would show a modicum of respect for the Second Amendment," reads the lawsuit, which asks a federal judge to toss out the city's ban on manufacturing guns and set aside a portion of the law prohibiting ghost guns. "Alas, it does not appear to have happened."
The lawsuit is the first significant legal skirmish in the fight over D.C.'s gun laws since at least 2015, when gun advocates successfully challenged the city's restrictions on who can carry a concealed handgun outside of their homes. To avoid another possible trip to the Supreme Court, city officials opted against appealing that ruling and instead loosened the law on concealed carry, allowing more people to be eligible for permits. D.C. lawmakers also did away with a ban on stun guns in the face of litigation. Still, judges have upheld other elements of D.C.'s laws on registering guns, but tossed out the city's one-handgun-per-month limit.
But the lawsuit also comes as D.C. faces a spike in homicides and high-profile shootings, which have left city officials scrambling to respond — and regularly decrying how guns are what often turn violent incidents into deadly ones.
In March 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser zeroed in on ghost guns, telling the D.C. Council that the guns — some of which are made from 3D-printed materials, and many of which do not have serial numbers — "pose a threat because they are readily available to individuals prohibited from purchasing or possessing a commercially manufactured firearm." She also said that some of the guns might not be picked up by metal detectors. Bowser said that between 2018 and 2019 the Metropolitan Police Department saw a 364% increase in the recovery of ghost guns.
This week, lawmakers in San Francisco enacted their own ban on ghost guns. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden proposed a series of new restrictions on ghost guns, including a requirement that sellers ran background checks on buyers and that serial numbers be included in every kit.
George Lyon, the attorney who filed the lawsuit and a regular plaintiff in D.C. gun cases himself, says he understands the desire to target guns without serial numbers and those made from materials that may elude metal detectors. But he also says Bowser and the council rushed the legislation and didn't properly clarify certain terms, potentially ensnaring otherwise legal guns and gun owners.
"They've gone way overboard, probably because of ignorance, maybe because they let anti-gun folks write the law," says Lyon, pointing to definitions in the law he says would classify otherwise legal and popular handguns — including those owned by Hanson and Godwin — as illegal "ghost guns." In the lawsuit, he accuses D.C. of legislating by "blindly wielding a meat axe when the Constitution requires it to carve carefully with a scalpel."
In a statement, a spokesperson for Attorney General Karl Racine said his office would defend the city's law.
"The Office of the Attorney General will continue to do everything in our power to combat gun violence and improve public safety, including defending the District's common-sense gun laws in court. We are proud the District has strong laws on the books to protect residents from gun violence. But the vast majority of guns in the District are brought in from other states with less restrictive laws, and we hope other states follow the District's lead and also pass strong gun safety legislation," said the spokesperson.
Lyon says D.C. could put itself in safer legal territory if it allowed residents to make their own guns from kits like those favored by Heller and then require owners to obtain serial numbers (as he says is allowed in California). He also suggests lawmakers define "ghost guns" more narrowly, as he says federal law does, to avoid ensnaring guns that could otherwise be legally registered.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.