The nation's capital treats gun owners like criminals. Even after a Supreme Court smackdown in 2008, Washington still has the country's most stringent gun-control laws. The city's anti-firearm ordinances are so convoluted and beyond the norm that average Americans can find themselves in big trouble for doing something that is entirely legal in almost every state. The District, however, is slowly changing its tune.
The Washington Times has confirmed that D.C. city council Chairman Phil Mendelson will introduce a bill this week to partially decriminalize possession of unregistered firearms and ammunition for nonresidents. Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, expects to announce the proposed changes in a press conference Monday. His legislation will allow those arrested in the District on firearms charges to choose administrative disposition of the charge, which means paying a fine and not getting a criminal record.
D.C. residents caught with unregistered guns or ammunition will still be charged with the misdemeanor crime, which carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. It's unclear if visitors who have already pled guilty in the District will have the opportunity to expunge their record if this law is enacted.
This change will affect quite a few people. Since 2009, 224 nonresidents have been arrested for possession of unregistered ammunition. One of those was former Army Specialist Adam Meckler. The medic had been out of the military for just two weeks when he was arrested at the VFW in Washington in September because building security found 14 long-forgotten 9mm rounds in his backpack. He didn't have a gun with him, so he was surprised that having a harmless round of ammunition could be considered a crime.
Spc. Meckler was jailed and charged for this nondangerous offense, but he decided to plead guilty because he didn't have the time or money needed to defend himself. The veteran of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been placed on the District's Firearms Offenders Registry.
The veteran doesn't deny he was at fault in not knowing D.C.'s unique firearm-related laws, but he feels it is unjust. In an interview, he said, "Because of my personal situation, I couldn't have stood up at the time, but now is my chance to tell my story so no one else goes through the same thing." He may have succeeded in that goal.
Days after Spc. Meckler's story appeared online in The Washington Times, Mr. Mendelson decided something should be done about individuals criminally prosecuted for firearms charges in Washington. The new city council chairman is making welcome changes, but more should be done.
It's time to wipe the registration requirements off the books because they do nothing to make the city safer. The criminals Mr. Mendelson wants to stop aren't going to bother standing in line and filling out paperwork. Otherwise law-abiding citizens end up branded as criminals for exercising their constitutional right to protect themselves and their families.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.
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