Three D.C. residents backed by one of the country’s most influential pro-gun organizations Monday filed a challenge to the District’s ban on semi-automatic handguns. The plaintiffs said city officials are flouting a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the city’s 32-year-old gun ban.
Lead attorney Stephen P. Halbrook and the National Rifle Association, which is financing the case, say the District’s definition of a machine gun is too vague and unfairly prohibits residents from using the guns for home defense.
“D.C. has stuck to its position that semi-automatic guns are machine guns,” Mr. Halbrook said. “It’s a crazy definition of machine gun.”
The plaintiffs in the case, filed in U.S. District Court, include Dick Anthony Heller, the respondent in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller that addressed the city’s ban.
The others are Amy McVey, the first D.C. resident to register a handgun after the ban was struck down, and Absalom F. Jordan Jordan Jr., a plaintiff in Seegars v. Ashcroft. The case challenged the Justice Department on the gun ban at about the time Mr. Heller was involved with the lower court Parker v. District case in 2003.
Gun rights advocates pounced immediately on the District’s law against semi-automatic handguns after the June 26 ruling by the Supreme Court.
The city’s law defines a machine gun as “any firearm which shoots automatically or semiautomatically more than 12 shots without reloading.”
The definition prohibits the majority of semi-automatic handguns regardless of how many rounds they are designed to hold because they can theoretically hold modified higher-capacity magazines.
Gun advocates say the District should revise the definition to use wording closer to the federal definition of a machine gun, which requires a gun to be capable of firing more than one shot with a single trigger pull.
D.C. interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said he expected the lawsuit but thinks the District’s definition of a machine gun is acceptable and intends to fight the challenge.
“I don’t think you can satisfy the Heller folks unless you have a law or regulation that says you can keep a loaded handgun in your home at all times,” he said.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanadam said restrictions on handguns leave residents at a disadvantage and will not prevent crime.
“The biggest losers are the law-abiding residents of the District of Columbia,” he said. “The laws are not going to stop the criminals.”
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, introduced bare-bones emergency legislation July 1 to outline the District’s new rules on registering handguns. The council passed a heftier, updated version July 15, and gun registration began two days later. That bill is in effect for 90 days while the council works on permanent legislation.
Mendelson spokesman Jason Shedlock said Mr. Mendelson reviewed the complaint and intends to address concerns about the District’s gun laws when the council returns from recess in September. However, he still has the option to convene a special session of the council’s public-safety committee.
“It raises a number of important points that he wants to address quickly over the next few months,” Mr. Shedlock said. “The emergency legislation was not meant to be comprehensive. It was meant as a stopgap.”
The plaintiffs are also challenging the rule that allows the chief of police to set the cost of registration, which Mr. Halbrook says improperly gives the chief power over who is allowed to exercise their Second Amendment right.
The complaint also challenges the District’s safe-storage provisions that require handguns to be disassembled or trigger locked and unloaded until they are being used against a “threat of immediate harm.” Gun advocacy groups say the provision leaves residents susceptible to attack while they are trying to prepare their weapons.