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D.C.’s gun debates a preview of national fights

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Gun control legislation got a much closer look over the last year in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings — but the District and gun rights activists have been fighting their own battle on the issue for the better part of a decade.

And the experience in the nation’s capital is likely to provide clues to how the gun rights debate is likely to go in 2014.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue on Capitol Hill consistently cited parts of the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision that struck down the District’s long-standing handgun ban to bolster their positions. But the man behind the case and other gun-rights activists continue fighting to chip away at stringent gun laws in place in the District and elsewhere, as gun control advocates try to stiff-arm the efforts and claim their own victories where they can.

The District’s gun debate remains squarely in the national spotlight: Reps. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, and John Barrow, Georgia Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would do away with D.C.’s ban on semiautomatic rifles and gut other gun restrictions — prompting a swift rebuke from the city’s non-voting delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton. 

“[T]he NRA and their acolytes underestimate our residents if they think this city will tolerate autocratic rule from Congress, particularly on the life-and-death issue of gun safety, any more than the 4th District of Ohio or the 12th District of Georgia would tolerate dictatorship from Congress on local matters,” she said.

But the introduction of the standalone bill is emblematic of how the debate has shifted since the Heller decision. Though it struck down the District’s 30-year handgun law, the high court majority also declared the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is “not unlimited,” citing concealed weapons laws and prohibitions on felons and the mentally ill from owning guns, for example. 

In 2010, as Congress was weighing whether to give D.C. voting rights in the House, Republicans introduced a rider to the bill that would have similarly gutted the District’s gun laws. Democrats, including Mrs. Norton and Mayor Vincent Gray, then chairman of the D.C. City Council, agreed that the trade-off would have been too costly, and the bill was pulled. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty had supported it.

Now, after a year that saw many states impose their own firearms restrictions but no major federal legislation pass Congress, the introduction of the bill indicates that gun control advocates are still playing defense at the national level in many ways, despite the Newtown tragedy.

“‘Keep and bear arms’ does not limit you to keeping your gun in your house,” Mr. Heller said. “‘Bear arms’ means to transport, to carry, to protect yourself outside your household,” 

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, striking down that state’s ban on concealed handguns as unconstitutional in September.

D.C. legal battle

But Mr. Heller has continued to tangle with the District over its gun-registration requirements after the 2008 decision that amended city law to permit the registration of a pistol by “[a]ny person ... for use in self-defense within that person’s home.”

In 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled for the city. Mr. Heller and other plaintiffs appealed.

In October 2011, the D.C. Circuit upheld the city’s ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, but remanded some of the registration requirements for further review.

In 2012, the D.C. City Council passed a law that did away with several of the registration requirements, such as requiring gun owners to undergo a background check every six years. Mr. Heller and the plaintiffs then filed a third amended complaint in July 2012, challenging a broad swath of the city’s laws, including requirements that applicants submit fingerprints and photographs, complete a firearms training or safety course, and not be blind.

“They went everywhere and collected every gun control law they could find and put it into our gun control laws in D.C., and that’s what Heller II challenged,” he said.

D.C. attorney general Irvin Nathan argued that the city’s requirements “are not onerous or unduly burdensome.”

“[T]hey do not violate the Second Amendment, even assuming they impinge on some ‘core’ aspect of that right,” he wrote in a motion filed late last year.

And despite the Illinois high court’s ruling, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in August a bill to require universal background checks on gun buys in the state — an effort that flamed out in Congress last spring.

New York, Connecticut, California, Maryland, Colorado and New York were among the states that passed strict new gun laws in the wake of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012.

“In the past 12 months alone, our work with legislators and grassroots groups has led four states — including New York — to pass laws that will stop gun sales to dangerous or disturbed people,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last month.

Mr. Bloomberg, who heads the gun control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, also counted as victories the Senate’s confirming B. Todd Jones as the permanent head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the blocking of “lax gun laws” at the federal level, and the successful campaign to persuade Wal-Mart “to voluntarily put in place measures that keep guns out of the wrong hands.”

On the other hand, about half of state legislatures across the country have tried to loosen gun laws over the same time period — in many cases successfully. Legislators in Illinois, for example, overrode Mr. Quinn’s veto of concealed-carry legislation in July, making the Prairie State the final one to adopt some form of legal concealed carry law. Many of the state-passed initiatives to restrict military-style semiautomatic rifles and ban high-capacity magazines have been or are being challenged in court.

Mrs. Norton, for her part, counted one of her 2013 accomplishments as working with the Senate to remove an amendment from the fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization bill expressing the sense of the Congress that active-duty military personnel be exempt from D.C. gun laws.

As with the proposal from Mr. Jordan and Mr. Barrow, that one has been introduced in the past — a trend Mrs. Norton’s office noted in its year-end round-up.

“As every year,” the 2013 summary reads, “[Mrs.] Norton faced bills to eliminate all or parts of D.C.’s gun laws.”

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