A federal appeals court has struck down as unconstitutional several of the District’s handgun registration laws, including requirements that gun owners reregister firearms every three years and a prohibition on registering more than one pistol per month.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District ruled 2-1 in the case Friday, upholding six challenged gun registration provisions but striking four others — a victory for Second Amendment advocates who describe the District’s gun laws as the most restrictive in the country.
In addressing the challenges brought by gun owner Dick Heller, the District had offered no “substantial evidence” that the requirements enhanced public safety, U.S. District Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote for the majority panel.
In defense of its “one pistol per month” rule, the District had argued that by limiting the number of guns that could be registered, the city would crack down on illegal firearms trafficking by limiting the number of guns in circulation.
Judge Ginsburg said while there was evidence to suggest that limiting sales of firearms could reduce trafficking, the “suggestion that a gun trafficker would bring fewer guns into the District because he could not register more than one per month there lacks the support of experience and of common sense.”
An attorney for Mr. Heller said the ruling on the “one pistol per month” rule was perhaps the most important law struck down by the appeals court because it could pave the way for challenges in other states.
“I think it’s an important precedent,” said attorney Dan Peterson, noting similar laws in California, Maryland and New Jersey.
Other laws struck down by the panel include a requirement for registrants to bring their firearms with them to Metropolitan Police Department headquarters to be inspected and registered by police.
“Common sense suggests that bringing firearms to the MPD would more likely be a threat to public safety; as Heller maintains, there is a risk that the gun may be stolen en route or that the [would-be registrant] may be arrested or even shot by a police officer seeing a ‘man with a gun,’” wrote Judge Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
The ruling is a second personal victory for Mr. Heller, who filed the lawsuit that led to the landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling overturning the District’s 32-year ban on virtually all handgun ownership. After the city adopted gun laws to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, Mr. Heller again sued the District challenging the registration requirements.
The court also invalidated a requirement that gun owners pass a knowledge test of D.C. gun laws. It left intact a requirement that owners pass a safety training class.
Judge Patricia Millett, an appointee of President Obama, joined Judge Ginsburg’s opinion. Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, dissented in part, saying she would have upheld all of the city’s registration laws.
“But today I fear the majority has initiated a retreat — at least in part — from the practice of restraint,” Judge Henderson wrote.
The court upheld other parts of the law, including basic registration requirements for long guns, fees assessed for registration, and three separate requirements that gun owners appear in person at headquarters, be fingerprinted, and photographed to register.
The practice of appearing in person to be fingerprinted and photographed “will directly and materially advance public safety by preventing at least some ineligible individuals from obtaining weapons and, more important, by facilitating identification of the owner of a registered firearm during any subsequent encounter with the police,” Judge Ginsburg wrote.
District officials took the ruling in stride, with Attorney General Karl Racine praising the court’s decision to uphold parts of the registration laws.
“This ruling is further confirmation that the people of the District of Columbia, acting through our elected officials, have complied responsibly and constitutionally with Supreme Court precedent in requiring that firearms be registered for the promotion of public safety,” Mr. Racine said. “We will continue to defend our gun laws against challenges from those who would impose their views on our residents.”
When informed of the ruling Friday during a radio interview on “The Politics Hour” on WAMU, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was not surprised.
“Our gun laws have been under attack for many years,” Ms. Bowser said. “We obviously disagree.”
Either side could potentially petition the appeals court for an en banc hearing, which would allow the entire D.C. Circuit to weigh in on the case.
Although six challenged portions of the law were upheld, Mr. Peterson said he considers the ruling “a pretty important victory.” He said it was too soon to reach a conclusion on whether his client might try to seek an en banc hearing in an effort to further loosen the city’s gun laws.
Mr. Heller’s case did not challenge more recently enacted laws that restrict the issuance of concealed carry permits in the District.
The city’s ban on carrying firearms in public was struck down in 2014 and lawmakers later adopted legislation requiring gun owners to demonstrate a “good reason” in order to obtain a permit. That law was challenged and also struck down as unconstitutional this summer, though a ruling in the case is on hold while the case is appealed.