Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Go Get Your Gun -- Sort Of

In response to the Supreme Court's historic gun rights case, the D.C. Council has passed emergency legislation authorizing the District to issue gun licenses and people to keep and carry guns in their homes -- sort of. Owners will have to be licensed and will have to pass a background check; guns are still banned in most public places; "automatic" weapons, defined quite broadly, are still banned; and, most controversially, guns will have to be stored unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with a trigger lock, unless there is a "reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm" in the home.

Now, the Council (which includes my colleague Mary Cheh) is entitled, in response to the Supreme Court ruling, to keep gun laws as restrictive in the District as is constitutionally permissible. Just because the existing law was struck down doesn't meanthe District has to give up. The Council can try to maintain as much of D.C.'s traditional anti-gun position as it can. It's even reasonable for the Council to be a little pushy and to enact some questionable provisions in order to probe for exactly where the constitutional limit is. The Supreme Court's opinion, by its own admission, left a lot of questions up in the air, and the courts will be decades resolving them. The District isn't required to roll over instantly. So licensing, background checks, and many other restrictions are appropriate.

But at the same time, the District has an obligation to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling in good faith. I haven't been able to find the exact text of the legislation (the D.C. Council's website isn't nearly as good as Congress's), so I'm just relying on news reports here, but I wonder whether the disassembled/trigger locked requirement can pass this test. The Supreme Court's opinion upheld "the inherent right of self-defense" that it found to be "central to the Second Amendment right." Noting that "the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon," the Court determined that such weapons could not be altogether banned from the home. With specific reference to a requirement that firearms be rendered and kept inoperable in the home, the Court said, "This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional."

Apparently the Council thinks it can avoid this problem by permitting handguns to be kept loaded if there is a "reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm." I take it this term is not clearly defined in the legislation. Will gun owners be allowed to load their weapons only after they hear someone breaking in? Is this not too much of a burden on the ability of citizens to use handguns for their "core lawful purpose"?

Well, other jurisdictions have trigger lock requirements, so perhaps it's legitimate for the Council to at least give them a try. But I wonder whether it will stand up in court.

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