Scope of proposed D.C. gun bill questioned

Attorney general’s office has doubts

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A proposed bill in the District that would decriminalize some gun and ammunition charges for nonresidents will send the wrong message about gun laws in the District, the city’s office of the attorney general said at a hearing Monday.

The bill under consideration would allow some legal gun owners who don’t live in the District and are caught traveling with their guns through the city to pay a fine and be released from custody rather than go to court on charges of possession of an unregistered firearm or unlawful possession of ammunition.

But Andrew Fois, deputy attorney general and head of the agency’s public safety division, told the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary that allowing firearms-related cases to be considered eligible for such resolutions will change the scope of the typically low-level offenses handled outside the courts.

He said administrative dispositions are “not intended, nor appropriate, for firearms-related offenses committed by either nonresidents or residents.”

“Certainly the line has to be drawn somewhere on what sorts of offenses are appropriate for this procedure and which ones are not,” Mr. Fois said.

He also said the bill, called the Administrative Disposition of Weapons Amendment Act of 2012, would have applied, at most, to 18 cases last year.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who sponsored the bill and oversaw Monday’s hearing, said the small number of people potentially affected by the legislation shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to provide an administrative solution to cases in which nonresidents might not be familiar with D.C. laws but find themselves facing serious charges.

“The number of people affected by the legislation I think is not important here,” Mr. Mendelson said. “So the bill is limited. That speaks to the fear that we are going to unleash guns in the city.”

The bill is the latest step in the reformation of the city’s gun laws since a near-total ban on handguns was overturned in the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court case. The bill also would allow administrative dispositions for those found in possession of a single restricted pistol bullet, or so-called “cop-killer” bullets that can pierce ballistic vests, as long as the person was not also in possession of a firearm.

Others who testified Monday lauded the bill for providing an alternative to the filing of criminal charges. But some complained the way the bill is written could actually lead to more confusion.

“Discerning between residents and nonresidents makes it more confusing” said Patrice Sulton, a member of the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Ms. Sulton suggested the administrative disposition should be an option for D.C. residents as well as for those from outside city limits. Laura Hankins, special counsel at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, questioned whether the disparate treatment of residents and nonresidents could open the city to litigation.

After listening to testimony, Mr. Mendelson said he would look further into the implications of extending administrative dispositions in firearms-related cases to D.C. residents as well.

Firearms cases involving nonresidents currently work through the court system several ways, with the attorney general’s office at times offering deferred sentencing or dropping charges in cases that won’t stand up in court.

“It gives us more ability to decide if it really was the innocent ‘nothing’ it appeared at the time,” Mr. Fois said.

The discretion that prosecutors already have in deciding which cases they recommend for deferred sentencing and other options prompted Ms. Sulton to also request that Mr. Mendelson add eligibility requirements to his bill that would outline specific instances in which administrative dispositions could be offered.

“It’s very unclear how the prosecutor’s office is choosing to extend these options to people in D.C.,” she said. “The way it has been applied thus far appears to be handled very arbitrarily.”

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