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D.C.'s many restrictions on where people can carry concealed handguns may face legal challenges in the wake of a pro-gun Supreme Court ruling.
VCU Capital News Service/Flickr
When the Supreme Court handed down a 6-3 decision last week overturning New York state's strict limitations on who can carry a gun outside their home, D.C. was largely spared a direct hit. That's because the law at issue — which required gun owners to show a good reason why they'd want to carry — isn't on the books in D.C.; local officials got rid of their own version of that requirement in 2017, making it easier for people to get concealed-carry permits.
But D.C. officials, gun control advocates, and pro-gun activists say they are still trying to understand the ruling's broader impact, and what it might mean for existing gun restrictions, including the limits on where people can carry concealed handguns in the city. And that, according to pro-gun advocates, likely means new avenues for legal challenges to D.C.'s gun laws.
"I think that there is definitely some room there for litigation," says George Lyon, a D.C.-based lawyer with Arsenal Attorneys who has filed multiple lawsuits in the past over the city's restrictive gun laws.
It's been that type of litigation that has forced D.C. officials to change the city's historically restrictive gun laws. Most prominently, the city's longstanding ban on handguns led to the Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision, which declared an individual right to own a handgun and pushed the city to allow handgun ownership. Six years later, a federal judge overturned the city's ban on carrying handguns outside the home, and a subsequent ruling declared that D.C. couldn't require residents to show a good reason to carry a concealed handgun.
Last week's Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, which was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, largely focused on New York state's restrictive law on allowing people to carry guns outside their homes. Maryland is one of a handful of states that has a similar law on the books. But the ruling more broadly implicated many other limits on carrying guns, saying that governments will now have to show that their restrictions are rooted in the country's historic traditions, and are not simply justified by a significant government interest.
In his opinion for the conservative majority, Thomas wrote that jurisdictions would still be able to prohibit the carrying of guns in certain "sensitive places," including government buildings, polling places, and courthouses. But he also opened the door to legal challenges to carrying a gun in other places, writing that "expanding the category of 'sensitive places' simply to all places of public congregation that are not isolated from law enforcement defines the category of 'sensitive places' far too broadly."
D.C., for one, prohibits open carrying of handguns and restricts where people with concealed-carry permits can go. Currently, someone carrying a concealed handgun cannot enter government buildings; schools or universities; polling places; libraries; hospitals; public transportation; stadiums or arenas; any business the serves alcohol; the National Mall, U.S. Capitol, and around the White House; or within 1,000 feet of a protest or dignitary who receives police protection. (There are roughly 4,000 people in D.C. with concealed-carry permits, split evenly between D.C. residents and non-residents.)
Lyon says he thinks that while certain restrictions on carrying guns in D.C. — at a polling place or while someone is at a bar — would probably withstand scrutiny, others may not.
"When you get into, you know, [you] can't carry [a gun] in a medical office or can't carry on the Metro or can't carry at a public event, whatever the hell that means, some of these raise issues where there really isn't a historical analog," says Lyon, who was also an original plaintiff in the Heller case. "I've seen one outfit that's looking for plaintiffs for a for a Metro [concealed] carry case."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the ruling doesn't target the legal standing of existing requirements that states and cities may impose for letting someone carry a gun, like requiring payment of fees, training, and background checks — all of which D.C. has on the books. But the conservative majority's ruling also said that some requirements could be challenged.
"[B]ecause any permitting scheme can be put toward abusive ends, we do not rule out constitutional challenges to shall-issue regimes where, for example, lengthy wait times in processing license applications or exorbitant fees deny ordinary citizens their right to public carry," it reads. (In the Heller II case in 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit tossed out certain portions of the city's registration requirements, while keeping others.)
"Maybe the D.C. regulatory regime is vulnerable after all," mused Randy Barnett, a Georgetown University law professor who has a concealed-carry permit in D.C., in an analysis published on SCOTUSblog this week.
Lyon also says there may be interest in challenging D.C.'s prohibition on assault weapons and extended magazines. In the past, courts have upheld the city's ban on assault weapons, but Thomas's new requirement that gun restrictions comport with the nation's historical traditions could change the calculus.
Gun control advocates have broadly decried the court's ruling and the impacts it may have. "The court has chosen to obstruct Americans from obtaining the common sense laws they want and need to protect their families and communities, a decision that defies centuries of gun regulation," said Brady United in a statement last week.
D.C. officials have been similarly critical of the decision, saying it could hamper the city's efforts to combat gun violence. Attorney General Karl Racine's office declined to discuss any possible repercussions on the city's gun laws from the court's ruling, but said in a statement that it would fight any pro-gun litigation in court.
"OAG will continue to defend the District's common-sense gun regulations and keep District residents safe," it said. "As the Supreme Court said, the Second Amendment is not a license to keep and carry any weapon in any manner for any purpose."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.