The Supreme Court decision overturning the District’s handgun ban won’t trigger an open season for guns, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Friday, because D.C. law still bans all semiautomatic weapons — such as the common 9 mm pistols used by police and the military.
But the D.C. ordinance — which, like the overall handgun ban, is among the strictest in the country - could be next in gun rights advocates’ cross hairs.
“I can’t say right now what we’ll do legally, but there’s definitely a problem with this law,” said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), during an exclusive online live chat with The Washington Times Friday morning.
Chief Lanier, responding to online questions in her own live chat noted that, “Automatic and semiautomatic handguns generally remain illegal … and the Supreme Court’s ruling is limited to handguns in the home only and does not allow them to be carried outside the home.”
Meanwhile, the NRA filed lawsuits Friday in San Francisco and Chicago against their gun bans.
The D.C. semiautomatic weapon ban applies to any firearm capable of carrying 12 rounds or more. In effect, that restricts purchasers of modern handguns to revolvers — such as the .38 Special or its powerful successor, the .357 Magnum — which typically carry five or six rounds at a time and cannot be modified to hold more.
Most other handguns are outlawed, even though most are designed for magazines that carry 10 rounds or less, because they could carry more rounds with modified magazines. Weapons capable of holding such magazines are illegal “machine guns” under D.C. law.
“It doesn’t matter if the gun owner actually has a magazine that size — all it takes is for one to exist somewhere,” Mr. LaPierre said, outlining his organization’s continued opposition to aspects of D.C. law.
The NRA supports a bill proposed in March 2007 by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Texas Republican, that would redefine a machine gun as a weapon that is designed or could be modified to shoot multiple rounds with one squeeze of the trigger, Mr. LaPierre said. Forty-five senators co-sponsored the measure, although its chances of passage are considered slim.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, said she thinks the court’s ruling leaves room for effective restrictions on the sale and registration of handguns in the District. She said she would fight any federal legislation to ease gun controls.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to strike down the District’s 32-year-old handgun ban - ruling for the first time that the Second Amendment’s right to gun ownership guarantees an individual right to own a gun - has already prompted significant challenges to other big city gun-control laws.
In addition to the NRA suit, the Washington-state based Second Amendment Foundation and the Illinois State Rifle Association on Thursday filed a federal suit against Chicago’s gun ban, which was adopted in 1982 and is similar to the District’s.
Chicago officials have said such a challenge would first have to overcome prior court rulings that state the Second Amendment does not apply to state and local governments.
But the Second Amendment Foundation suit asserts that the “right to keep and bear arms is a privilege and immunity” that, because of the 14th amendment, may not be violated by “states and their political subdivisions.” The 14th amendment states that the Bill of Rights supersedes state law.
The lawsuit targets gun registration requirements in the city. Alan Gura, of Alexandria, who argued against the D.C. gun ban before the Supreme Court, is a lead attorney in the case.
San Francisco law bans possession of firearms by public-housing residents.
“The Second Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, not just the rich,” the NRA’s Mr. LaPierre said.
The effectiveness of the gun laws in the District, where warring gangs and crack cocaine helped the city earn its “murder capital” nickname in the early 1990s, has been disputed for years.
The statutes, enacted in 1976 with a 12-1 vote by the D.C. Council, prohibited city residents - with few exceptions - from registering handguns and keeping them in the city. They also required legal firearms such as shotguns and rifles to be stored disassembled or bound with trigger locks.
City officials including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, have long held that repealing the gun ban would open the door to more gun-related crimes.
FBI statistics show that the District’s homicide rate was 32.8 per 100,000 residents in 1975, the last full year before the gun ban was passed by the council. The rate dropped immediately after the ban was imposed then skyrocketed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but has leveled off in recent years.
The homicide rate peaked in 1991, when the city of just less than 600,000 reported 482 homicides - a rate of 80.6 per 100,000 residents.
In 2006, the last full year for which official statistics were available, the rate of homicides and non-negligent manslaughters in the city was 29.1.
Chief Lanier acknowledged in her “Live Chat” that “it is very difficult to measure what has been prevented” by the gun ban, but noted that crime in the District has gone down for more than a decade.
At the same time, gun recoveries in the city have risen every year between 2002, when the count was 1,931, and last year when it was 2,924, according to police. Police also have said the majority of gun crimes in the District are committed with handguns.
Chief Lanier said she remains concerned that, without the ban, guns will wind up in the wrong hands — namely those of children and young adults.
“It is hard to predict the impact on street crime, but a good bet that accidental shootings will go up” in the ban’s absence, Chief Lanier said.
Mr. LaPierre said that the ban was ineffective and predicted that crime will fall in its absence.
“The end of the ban should reduce crime by letting honest people defend themselves,” Mr. LaPierre said.