Attorneys for the District said Sunday that they will seek to forestall a judge’s landmark ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the city’s ban on carrying handguns outside the home.
U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. released a decision Saturday that guts the city’s gun laws, which allowed residents to possess guns only inside their homes or businesses.
In light of Supreme Court decisions that struck down near total bans on handguns in the District and Chicago in recent years, “there is no longer any basis on which this Court can conclude that the District of Columbia’s total ban on the public carrying of ready-to-use handguns outside the home is constitutional under any level of scrutiny,” Judge Scullin wrote in the opinion dated Thursday.
The ruling, five years after the original case was filed, took city officials by surprise and sent police, politicians and attorneys scrambling for a response.
The District’s attorney general’s office was “studying the ruling and considering our options,” spokesman Ted Gest said. In the meantime, city attorneys will seek to block the ruling from taking immediate effect.
“The District of Columbia will seek a stay of the judge’s order regarding the D.C. gun-carrying law pending a potential appeal,” Mr. Gest said in a statement.
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Officer Paul Metcalf, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department, said he was unsure how the department was handling enforcement of gun laws while the city decided on its legal strategy.
A lawyer representing the gun owners in the case said he interprets the ruling as taking immediate effect.
“The decision is in effect, so unless or if it is stayed, people who have a lawfully registered handgun in the District could be outside with it,” attorney Alan Gura said.
Judge Scullin’s 19-page opinion orders the city to cease enforcement of the law that restricts residents from carrying handguns outside the home “until such time as the District of Columbia adopts a licensing mechanism consistent with constitutional standards enabling people to exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms.”
It was unclear to what extent city lawmakers might try to regulate the carrying of handguns.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision struck down the District’s near total ban on gun ownership in the city, residents have been able to purchase guns but were barred from carrying them outside their homes. Under city law developed after the ruling, gun owners have had to register firearms and submit to fingerprinting and training requirements.
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The year after the Heller decision, four gun owners joined the Second Amendment Foundation in this lawsuit, challenging the police department’s denial of a gun registrations through which they sought to carry their handguns in public for self-defense.
Although Judge Scullin, an Army veteran appointed to his position in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, recognized the right to carry guns outside the home, lawmakers have plenty of room to restrict that right. The Supreme Court last year declined to hear a case challenging a Maryland law that requires applicants to provide a “good and substantial reason” to carry a weapon in public.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the city needs to maintain strong gun restrictions.
“The nation’s capital is a very different place than anywhere else in the country,” Mr. Mendelson said. “If there is a right to carry, it would have to be more heavily regulated.”
Mr. Mendelson was uncertain Sunday whether the D.C. Council might have to come back from its summer recess to draft new regulations.
“While this decision is of great concern, I don’t think it has quite the same urgency as the Heller decision,” he said. “If the attorney general is seeking a stay and filing an appeal, that makes it all the more certain that the situation is uncertain.”
A spokeswoman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray said the mayor “remains committed to having reasonable gun safety measures in the District” and would work with law enforcement to “ensure that our gun laws remain strong.”
But any restrictions would need to survive a review period in Congress, where Republicans have made regular attempts to water down the city’s gun laws through amendments known as “riders” that often are attached to large spending bills.
The plaintiffs in the case were pleased by the long-awaited ruling.
“It feels good to win,” said Amy McVey, a Northwest resident and plaintiff in the case who was the first person to register a handgun in 2008 after the city’s ban was lifted. “The court affirmed that the Constitution does apply to D.C. and I do have constitutional rights even though I’m a D.C. resident.”
A fourth plaintiff in the case was a New Hampshire student who was charged with illegally carrying a gun in the District after he was stopped for speeding. He later sought a permit to allow him to legally carry his handgun when he traveled through the city but had his application rejected by the Metropolitan Police Department, which handles gun licensing and registration.
The decision also prohibits the city from banning otherwise qualified residents of other states from carrying handguns in public solely because they are not city residents.
“I am very gratified that we have gotten a decision that indicates our rights to protect ourselves,” said George Lyon, another plaintiff in the case.
Despite the ruling, he urged gun owners to proceed with caution.
“Does that mean that I think people should openly carry a handgun and walk down the street? That would be a little premature until we know how the District intends to respond,” he said.