In Washington, D.C., it is illegal to posses ammunition if you don’t have a gun registered. It is also unlawful to have ammo that is not in the same caliber or gauge as your legal gun. The penalty for holding a round of the wrong caliber is up to a year in jail — as stiff as the punishment for illegal gun possession.
So I was very careful not to buy ammunition before I had my legally registered gun at home. Although I wondered about the purpose of the law. What’s the worst I could do with ammo, but no gun? Throw it hard and knock a tooth out?
After I became a gun owner, I needed to find a place to buy a box of 9mm for my gun. The restrictions in the District are strict, but the D.C. gun registry office staff make it more difficult. As I learned, the police who staff the office and are tasked with explaining the gun laws to residents just invent laws that don’t exist.
My search started with consulting my well-worn registration packet for the laws. The first two restrictions were clear. A bullet that is capable of penetrating more than 18 layers of Kevlar is prohibited. Of all the gun-control laws, this one has the highest penalty of 10 years in jail.
Also banned are “large capacity ammunition feeding devices,” which means anything that has a magazine of more then 10 rounds. My Sig Sauer came from the factory with a 13-round mag, so I had to have my dealer swap it out for a 10-round one before transferring it to the District. I don’t understand how forcing law-abiding citizens go to the added expense of buying the different mags to prevent loading three extra cartridges makes the city any safer.
BUYING IN D.C. AND ONLINE
The guide says the sale and transfer of ammo is prohibited unless the seller is a licensed firearms dealer. Well, there’s only one legal gun dealer in the District, Charles Sykes, and he doesn’t sell ammo. He just transfers guns. That narrowed my search down significantly.
The registration packet does not mention the possibility of ordering ammo online. When I explored that route, I found many big retailers don’t ship to the District. Cheaper than Dirt’s website won’t let you order from a D.C. address, nor will Bud’s Gun Shop. Midway USA does not show any restrictions on its site, but I called customer service and was told they don’t ship ammo to the District.
Appropriately named Ammoman says on its home page that it does not ship to Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts or New Jersey. I called and was informed that Washington is also on their no-sell list. Bass Pro’s site says it does not ship to D.C., Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York City. Cabelas and Sportman Guide also don’t sell to these places.
It’s not against the law for retailers to send ammunition through the mail to D.C. residents, but it seems these stores are all afraid of running afoul of the jurisdictions with the stiffest gun-control laws.
THE LAWS, ACCORDING TO D.C. GUN REGISTRY
I brought my questions to the D.C. firearms registry office at Metropolitan Police Department. Officer Harper, who I’d last seen after he returned my gun to me from the required ballistics test, answered the phone. I asked him where I can legally get ammo.
“Any licensed gun store or dealer,” he told me, not needing to state the obvious that these options were both outside the District.
So I can go to any gun store in Maryland or Virginia?
“The only thing you need to take with you is your registration certificate and driver’s license,” he said. I assumed he was referring to the transportation issues, but I found out later that I was wrong.
As far as cost of the ammunition, I’d heard from friends that the cheapest were online stores, but that was not possible for me. I’d been told that the second best prices were from retailers like Wal-Mart. Gun stores and shooting ranges had the highest prices.
Legally, I can only take my gun out of my home when I’m transporting it directly to or from “hunting, shooting at practice range, etc.” So I asked Officer Harper, how can I legally go to a store and buy ammunition before going to shoot?
“The only time you should be be separated from your weapon is in your home. Once you put it in your vehicle, you shouldn’t be leaving your vehicle,” he told me.
Well then, how do I go into a store to buy ammo?
“As far as going to purchase ammunition, if it were me, I wouldn’t care what the law was in that state, as far as leaving my weapon in the vehicle, because to me, that’s crazy,” he said.
So should I bring the gun in the box with me into the store?
“That’s your option if that’s what you want to do. That’s a whole lotta carrying around a weapon that someone could snatch out of your hand while you’re going to the gun store,” he said. I hadn’t worried about getting robbed before he said this.
D.C. FIREARM REGISTRY: OFFICE OF MISINFORMATION
Officer Harper’s job is to give the public accurate information about gun laws. You would think he’d be familiar with the nearest state’s basic regulations. But, the rest of this conversation demonstrates that he’s giving out totally inaccurate information as fact to D.C. residents.
I asked if there was anything else I should know. He repeated that I should have my D.C. registration certificate handy in the Old Dominion State.
I protested, “No one in Virgina needs to see the registration.”
“If you’re going to purchase ammunition they do,” he replied.
“They do? I didn’t know that,” I said.
“Yes!,” he exclaimed loudly. “You don’t have a Virginia state driver’s license, do you?”
“No. Is that what you need?” I asked, genuinely confused. “I don’t know this, I’ve never done it before.”
“To purchase ammunition, you need a valid registration certificate and you driver’s license in order to prove you’re the person who that weapon is legally registered to,” he explained.
I had a feeling that Virginia wouldn’t care if my gun was registered in D.C. But I couldn’t get a word in edgewise during Officer Harper’s lecture on Virginia’s firearms laws.
“If I’m a gun dealer, and you come into my shop, and you want to buy ammo, first of all you need to be able to identify yourself,” said Officer Harper, taking on the role of a Virginian shop owner.
“If you show me just your driver’s license, I can’t sell you ammo unless you have a valid D.C. registration certificate. If you can show me that, you have a picture of you on there and a picture on your driver’s license, and the license says you live at such and such an address. Everything matches up the way it’s supposed to, then I feel comfortable selling you ammunition. Other than that, you’re not getting ammo from me.”
He paused, then added definitively, “You gotta have the valid registration certificate with you in order to purchase ammunition. Period.”
The police officer wasn’t done with his legal lesson; he wanted to get the gun dealer in trouble with the law too.
“If you go somewhere and they sell you ammunition without that, then there’s a problem,” said Officer Harper. “It’s not necessarily on you. But if you happen to get stopped and you don’t have the registration certificate with you, then you shouldn’t have the gun or the ammunition.”
CORRECT VIRGINIA LAWS
I hung up and thought through my options. Then I drove with my gun in a locked box - and no ammo - to Virginia Sharpshooters in Lorton, Virginia. Mike Collins was behind the counter. I signed up for a lane, then said, “And I need a box of 9mm caliber.”
Mr. Collins smiled, “Just say, ‘A box of 9mm’. You don’t need to say ‘caliber.’” He has been working hard to teach me how to “speak like a gun owner.”
“At least I didn’t say a box of ‘bullets’. I just learned that a couple weeks ago,” I said, laughing.
He reached behind him and put a box on the counter.
“Don’t you need to see my driver’s license?” I asked.
“Nope,” he answered.
“What about my gun registration certificate?” I said, holding up the flimsy yellow sheet of paper with my picture on it.
“Nope,” said Mr. Collins, skeptically.
“The D.C. firearms registry office said you need both those things to sell me ammo, or the store will be breaking the law,” I said.
“That’s not true,” he said. “Emily, you don’t need to show me anything to buy ammo.”
Later, I asked Virginia-based firearms lawyers Dan Peterson and Richard Gardiner about the laws described by Officer Harper. They confirmed what Mr. Collins said, that the Virginia dealers do not need to see D.C. identification or registration certificates to sell ammunition. (Although they may ask for identification to confirm that a person is not underage. Clearly Mr. Collins wasn’t mistaking me for a teenager.) They confirmed that the D.C. police were wrong in saying retail stores would be in trouble for not doing these checks .
The attorneys said that there is no law in Virginia against leaving a firearm in a locked box in the car. Officer Harper was wrong about that, too. As for carrying the gun into a gun store, they said that I should be cautious about the open carry laws. If I needed to bring the pistol into a dealer’s store, they said “cased and unloaded” would be the best way to do that.
Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Peterson told me that a D.C. resident driving with the gun in a locked box in the trunk would be fine after crossing the Potomac. Also, a Washingtonian like me driving a SUV would be legal if the gun was in the passenger compartment (my “way back”) as long as it was either secured in a container or compartment or inaccessible to any one in the car.
Before I left target practice at the Sharpshooters range, I carefully saved some rounds in the box. Officer Harper told me that ammunition had to be transported in a separate container than locked gun and out of reach of the passenger seat. I put the ammo in a bag in the way back of my SUV.
I was still concerned about correctly following D.C. laws, but I needed to save a few rounds to take home so that my gun was no longer just an expensive paper weight.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Victory for Gun Rights 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.