D.C. police issued bulletins to officers and residents Monday explaining that they no longer would arrest people for carrying legally registered handguns outside their homes, even as city attorneys sought to temporarily block a federal judge's ruling that declared the District's ban on firearms possession in public unconstitutional.
Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan filed a motion asking for an immediate stay of the ruling pending an appeal or for at least 180 days to allow the city time to develop and enact new gun-carry regulations.
The Metropolitan Police Department and city lawmakers and attorneys scrambled over the weekend to figure out the scope and the effects of the landmark opinion released Saturday by U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr.
Given the confusion surrounding the ruling, Mr. Nathan said city lawmakers deserved time to weigh the District's unique security concerns as the nation's capital as they try to craft appropriate legislation to regulate the carrying of guns in public.
"A stay would prevent the Council from having to unduly rush, which could result in a law that is not as considered as it could be, and limit the public's confusion and other unintended consequences," Mr. Nathan wrote.
He argued that the judge's order needed to be tailored because it was broader than the initial scope of the lawsuit, which involved four individuals who sought to carry handguns for self-protection in the District. He said defense attorneys were construing the order as relating to the carrying of any deadly weapon in public — not just handguns — and demanding that prosecutors drop criminal charges in such cases.
It's unclear when Judge Scullin will decide whether to issue the stay. The judge did not consider a stay in his initial ruling on the case because neither party sought one, his judicial assistant Rosemary Riley said.
Mr. Nathan's motion says the plaintiffs in the case do not object to a 90-day stay. But the attorney representing the gun owners who brought the lawsuit in 2009 took issue Monday with the contention that the District deserved special treatment because of the politicians and dignitaries who frequent the capital.
"Every state in America has important installations. Foreign consultants, the president and members of Congress visit every state in the union, and the gun laws don't change when important people are in town," attorney Alan Gura said in an interview on WAMU-FM Radio. "While, yes, there can be some restrictions for so-called sensitive places, that doesn't mean that we should disarm the 600,000 or so people who live here plus all the others who come visit the nation's capital to work or to have other business here."
D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier issued guidance late Sunday to police officers on how to enforce gun laws in the wake of the ruling and to outline scenarios under which the carrying of a firearm would be illegal.
Noting that the ruling has left many questions unanswered, Chief Lanier issued additional instruction Monday and said she has legal staff on hand 24 hours a day to field questions that police officers may have about enforcement.
"Under the current ruling, possession of a firearm outside of the home or business in and of itself MAY NOT be criminal," Chief Lanier wrote in a memo issued to police and the public. "For example, a District resident that has a legally registered firearm may legally possess it outside of the home or business. However, District residents are still PROHIBITED from possessing a firearm that is not legally registered in the District."
She noted that the ruling applies only to handguns and not long guns or shotguns and that nothing in the ruling prevents private businesses from prohibiting firearms on their property.
Prior to the ruling, D.C. residents had to register guns and local laws prohibited the possession of guns outside of the residents' homes or businesses. Possession of an unregistered firearm in the District was punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or one year in jail.
As of Monday, police said 3,076 guns had been registered in the District since a near total ban on handguns was lifted in 2008.
In addition to D.C. police, a patchwork of other law enforcement agencies is responsible for security at government buildings, in federal parks and elsewhere, leaving room for discrepancies in how the ruling is interpreted.
U.S. Park Police plan to enforce the law the same as D.C. police, said Park Police spokeswoman Sgt. Lelani Woods. That means guns can be carried even on the National Mall, but will remain prohibited at national museums, she said.
Nothing has changed for U.S. Capitol Police, which bans handguns and firearms from the Capitol grounds.
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