Dick Anthony Heller, the lead plaintiff in the historic 2008 Supreme Court case that invalidated D.C.’s handgun ban, has once again successfully challenged D.C.’s oppressive gun control regime. Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a ruling in the NRA-supported case of Heller v. District of Columbia (Heller III), bringing further relief to the beleaguered law-abiding gun owners of the nation’s capital. While the court did not totally invalidate D.C.’s onerous registration regime, today’s ruling is an important step in bringing gun ownership within reach to more of D.C.’s upstanding residents.
Following the Supreme Court’s rebuke in the original Heller case, an unrepentant D.C. Council immediately set out to make the lawful keeping and bearing of arms in the District as expensive, time-consuming, and difficult as possible. Intrepid reporter Emily Miller chronicled her own experience negotiating D.C.’s firearm registration process between 2011 and 2012 in a series of reports for the Washington Times that later formed the basis for a book. At the time, registration involved a 17-step process, $465 in fees (not including the price of the gun), five hours of mandatory training that had to be completed outside the District, and multiple trips to D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) headquarters during business hours.
Thanks to a combination of political advocacy, media exposé, and litigation, the hurdles and expense of D.C.’s firearm registration process have been whittled down over the years. Nevertheless, the District has consistently remained one of the most difficult places in the U.S. to acquire a firearm lawfully. The plaintiffs in Heller III challenged numerous aspects of the remaining law, including its application to long guns; the requirement for applicants to appear at police headquarters to be fingerprinted, photographed, and to submit their registration paperwork; the requirement that registrants bring their firearms into police headquarters; the expiration of the registration after three years; various fees; the mandatory training requirements; the requirement of passing a test on D.C. law; and a prohibition on the same person registering more than one handgun during any 30-day period.
District officials attempted to justify these requirements on the basis of “protecting police officers” and “promoting public safety.” Significantly, the court of appeals found that “the District has not offered substantial evidence from which one could draw a reasonable conclusion that the challenged requirements will protect police officers ….”
Citing the testimony the of one of the District’s own witnesses, the court noted that police are trained to account for the possible presence of dangerous weapons in any situation where they might encounter a crime in progress, a domestic dispute, or any other potentially violent environment. This is so, the expert acknowledged, even when responding to calls at locations without registered weapons. In any event, the evidence in the case revealed that MPD officers very rarely even bother to check the firearm registry when responding to a call, conducting an investigation, or executing a search warrant.
The court also determined that several of the challenged registration requirements did not promote public safety, including the requirement that applicants bring the firearms they wish to register to MPD headquarters; the three-year expiration and re-registration requirement; the required test of legal knowledge; and the limitation of registering one handgun per person during any 30 day period.
Accordingly, it held that all of these requirements offended the Second Amendment and are unenforceable.
The court rejected the premise that limiting the number of firearms lawfully present in a home is a valid argument for gun control, even if it could reduce the harm that could be caused by firearms generally. “Accepting that as true,” the court wrote, “it does not justify restricting an individual’s undoubted constitutional right to keep arms (plural) in his or her home, whether for self-defense or hunting or just collecting, because, taken to its logical conclusion, that reasoning would justify a total ban on firearms kept in the home.” This may be one of the most significant aspects of the decision, as discouraging lawful gun ownership has been the cornerstone of D.C.’s approach to gun control.
While these developments will bring substantial benefits to those who wish to lawfully own guns in D.C., the court still upheld the balance of the registration procedure. If history is any guide, moreover, the District may seek further review of the court’s decision, or it may simply enact other impediments to firearm ownership, which will require further court testing at taxpayer expense. Thus, while pro-gun advocates should cheer the court’s ruling, it also merely underscores the ongoing necessity of the D.C. Second Amendment Enforcement Act, which would comprehensively reform D.C.’s gun control laws and prohibit future abuses by the D.C. Council.