I had my new, legally-registered Sig Sauer at home for ten days before I figured out how to take it to a nearby state to shoot it.
Although I’d spent four hours in a classroom memorizing the gun laws in Washington, D.C. and then passed a written test at the police station, I was still confused about the logistics of legally transporting a gun somewhere to practice.
While I finally learned enough to get my gun to a range in Virginia on Friday to shoot it, the laws turned out to be far more complicated than I could have imagined.
Owning a firearm is a big responsibility. I have been told repeatedly of the importance of regular training in order to practice safe handling and accurate aim. But it seems, the politicians in D.C. do not encourage residents to regularly train.
There are no shooting ranges in the District, and it is virtually impossible for one to be opened. In addition to the zoning laws, it is illegal to shoot a gun within the city limits. Also, it is against the law to have a gun in a public space - which means anywhere but your home. Thus, responsible gun owners who live in Washington have to go to Virginia or Maryland for target practice, which means figuring out the transport laws.
The District’s 22-page handgun registration packet offers only three bullet points for guidance on legal transport, so many questions go unanswered. D.C. residents have to sort through these vague rules on gun transport in order to go to a shooting range. However, these same transport laws also apply to any U.S. citizen who is driving through the nation’s capital with a firearm.
If you use public transportation, you can’t bring ammo and the gun stays in a locked box. But there are no shooting ranges on the Metro or bus lines. Once again, gun ownership in D.C. seems to require car ownership, thanks to the city’s laws.
According to the law, I’m only allowed to take my gun out of my home when “travelling directly to or form a lawful firearm-related activity” — which are registration, hunting and shooting at a practice range. If I drive, the gun has to be unloaded and in a locked container. Those requirements were clear in the laws.
From here on, things got more complicated. Neither the firearm nor the ammunition can be “directly accessible from the passenger compartment.” That seems easy enough if your car has a trunk, but I drive an SUV. In that case, it says that, “the firearm or the ammunition must be unloaded and contained in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.”
I’d planned on putting my gun in a locked box in the back near the rear latched door, but how would I lock up the ammo? Why does it forbid using the glove compartment and console if it was already clear the gun had to be out of my reach?
I was mostly worried about interactions with the police and unforeseen circumstance. If I get pulled over, how do I prove to the police that I’m on my way to a shooting range? What if I need to stop for gas? (This is a common occurrence for me because I drive until the last drop, now that gas is $4 a gallon in D.C.)
The short section in the packet doesn’t answer any of these questions, so I called the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s firearm registration office for help. Officer Harper answered the phone. I last saw him a week earlier as I left the registration office with my newly-legal gun. I told him that I had some more questions about how to prove to the police that I’m taking my firearm to the range.
He answered - what I already knew from reading - that the gun had to be in a locked box once I stepped out of the house. He added, “You have to have the registration certificate with the picture on it.”
Last week, Officer Harper himself had watched as his colleague Officer Brown attached the the passport photos (that I provided) to the certificate before I left their office. Now it seems he wanted to make sure I hadn’t given my registration to someone else to use.
(I can’t understand why the city doesn’t issue gun registrations laminated like a driver’s license so that they can’t be altered. Instead, the registration office staples a photo onto a tissue-thin sheet of yellow paper and tells us to carry it around for three years until it expires.)
I had the locked box and certificate basics covered. How do I prove that I’m transporting a gun to a shooting range?
Officer Harper replied that, “When the officer says, ‘May I have your driver’s license and registration. Ma’am, is there anything in your car I need to be concerned about?’ You advise him, ‘I’ve got my weapon in the trunk of my vehicle, and I’m on the way to the range, or I’ve been to the range. Here’s my receipt. And if you’re on your way to the range, that’s all you can tell him, ‘I’m on my way to the range.’”
They will just take my word for it?
“What choice does he have? I mean it’s optional whether he wants to take your word for it or not,” he answered.
Now I was really concerned. The District is basing whether I go to jail for a year on whether the cop believes my word? Optional is not a good thing when it comes to law enforcement.
“You say, ‘I’m on my way to the range,’” the police officer told me. “He’s not likely to get on his cell phone and call, ‘Do you have a reservation for this young lady here I have stopped at a traffic stop?” I doubt very seriously they are going to do that.”
This reminded me of one Sunday morning when I got pulled over on my way to church in D.C. The cop wouldn’t tell me why, just demanded my license, registration and insurance card. He came back to my car and handed me a ticket with this citation: “Driving with coffee cup.”
Of course, I took it to court, and the judge threw it out since it is not against the law to drive with a coffee cup in the District. But that experience made me afraid I could get thrown in jail for an incorrect charge if a firearm was involved in the situation.
Officer Harper had more unsettling news. “Most ranges close - for the sake of argument - at 9pm. And say you’re riding around in your car at eleven thirty or twelve o’clock at night with your weapon in your car. And you get pulled over and say that you’re going to the range. Then he’d have probable cause to believe you weren’t doing what you say you’re doing. And at the least, he can take the weapon for safe keeping.”
All of these scenarios seem to make an honest gun owner who hasn’t harmed anyone into a criminal. Now, I started to anticipate about the worst-case scenario situations.
What if I have to go to the bathroom on the way in or out of town?
“The only thing I can tell you is don’t do any more than you can stand,” answered Office Harper. Now the police are telling law abiding citizens to “hold it.”
What if I run out of gas?
“Then you’re going to have to get someone to come bring you some,” he answered.
That seemed to me about the most absurd possible solution. Wouldn’t it be better for gun safety to just pull into a gas station?
“Well if you are going in a gas station, if you lock your car, how long does it take to get gas? Especially if you have a credit card. You’re right there at your vehicle,” he said, making it seem like he was approving of this quick stop. “You take your keys out and if you feel the need to, you lock the car up so no one can get in it. And um, well, hopefully you don’t get carjacked.”
Carjacked? Until now, I was only worrying about not breaking the District’s gun-control laws. This police officer was making me very anxious.
What do I tell the cop if I need to get gas?
“You have to just explain what happened. Only thing is he’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you get gas before going to the range?’” said Officer Harper.
I never get gas before doing anything. I just drive until it’s empty.
“Then you need to explain that to whoever you need to convince,” he answered.
Convince? These laws are so far from black and white, they might as well be transparent.
Officer Harper was still trying to put the blame on me if I ran out of gas. “If I know I’m going to the range, and my car was almost on “E”, I think I’d fill up before I made that trip so you don’t have that problem,” he said, sounding like a school principal.
After all these frightening warnings, I still wanted to go to the range. So I packed my gun in a locked box and put it in the back of my car.
I’d just started out for Virginia Sharpshooters small arms range, which is 20 miles away in Lorton, when the yellow gas light lit up on my console to show the tank was near empty. I had two choices. Go to a D.C. gas station and risk getting pulled over for something else and getting into a mess. Or, drive the three miles to Virginia and get gas there. From what I was told, by doing the later, I would be violating the letter of the law by not going directly to a shooting range. But it seemed the better option since Virginia cops wouldn’t be enforcing D.C. laws.
With gas and a gun, I went to my favorite range in the area. Inside Sharpshooters, Mike Collins immediately recognized me from my last visit. “Well look who’s here,” he said smiling. I felt like I was in a safe place now with people who weren’t looking to make me into a criminal.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Buying Ammunition in D.C.
“Emily Gets Her Gun” is a series following senior editor Emily Miller as she tries to legally get her hands on a gun in the nation’s capital. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.