The District of Columbia’s city council voted unanimously on Tuesday to decriminalize inadvertently violating the city’s unique gun laws. The liberal council surprisingly moved forward with the schedule vote, despite the national calls for more gun-control laws in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary mass murder Friday in Newtown, Conn.
The new law gives the prosecutor the option of using administrative disposition for unregistered firearm or unregistered ammunition offenses. A violator would be then be given a fine (to be determined by the court) but no criminal record. This only applies to people who aren’t charged with another crime during the same event.
The current penalty for possessing unregistered guns or ammo is up to $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
This new policy is for residents and tourists alike. Originally the bill only only applied to nonresidents, as the council thought it reasonable that they would not know about the District’s extreme firearms laws. In committee, this was challenged by lawyers who said that Americans can’t be charged different for breaking the law.
City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson amended the bill before final passage in order to make it universally applicable. However, the prosecution will be able to take into account whether the person was a resident at the time of arrest and “had knowledge of” the gun laws. The change will go into effect after Mayor Vincent Gray signs it and the 30-day congressional review period passes.
After the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Illinois ban on carry rights, the nation’s capital became the only place in the country where Americans are denied their constitutional right to bear arms. The city requires that every single gun be registered with the police. In addition, D.C. only allows those with a registered gun to possess ammunition.
In the hearing on this legislation in September, Mr. Mendelson read aloud the stories I’d written on war veterans Army 1st Lt. Augustine Kim and Spec. Adam Meckler, who both went to jail for gun crimes.
Lt. Kim was legally transporting his guns in 2010 from his parents’ home to his own in South Carolina, but he stopped in D.C. for a doctor’s appointment related to injuries suffered while in Afghanistan. At a traffic stop, the police arrested him and charged him with four felony counts of possessing unregistered guns (which were locked in the trunk), threw him in jail overnight and confiscated his guns for two years. (Click here to read Lt. Kim’s story.)
Army Spc. Adam Meckler went to the VFW building in D.C. to turn in some forms as he was leaving active duty. The veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had forgotten about some loose rounds of ammunition at the bottom of his backpack. Spc. Meckler was handcuffed, arrested and ended up accepting a plea deal, which he now regrets. (Click here to read Spc. Meckler’s story.)
Both Spc. Meckler and Lt. Kim cooperated with me because they believed that putting aside their own shame about having a criminal record (Lt. Kim’s deal cleared his name after a year) was worth it in order to help others avoid making the same mistake. Today they have been given the only reward they asked for, which is helping other responsible and law-abiding gun owners avoid getting tangled in Washington’s crosshairs.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times. Her “Emily Gets Her Gun” series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.