It’s about to become easier for D.C. residents to obtain concealed-carry firearms permits — but researchers said Washingtonians will still have to face a set of city laws so complex and muddled that it may mean there is hardly any place they can safely carry their weapons.
The city’s “gun-free zones” law places restrictions on carrying firearms within 1,000 feet of a school, college, day care center, playground, library, public housing complex and other public gathering spots.
The list is so broad that nearly every city block would qualify as a gun-free zone, said John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, who released a map Tuesday showing the parts of the city he said would clearly be affected by the 1,000-foot restriction.
“They’re just making it so it’s actually impossible for somebody to legally carry in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Lott said. “My own guess is they probably did it on purpose. I can’t get into people’s minds to know, but there’s no other law that’s drafted anywhere near similar to what’s in here.”
The Metropolitan Police Department gave a different interpretation of the law, saying the gun-free zones apply only to those carrying firearms illegally and that the penalty amounts to boosting prison time when other offenses have been committed.
Still, legal analysts said they would be cautious given the “bafflingly drafted” ordinance.
The fight over the meaning of the law comes just days after the city announced it would not pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court of a circuit court ruling this year that said the District’s “good reason” rule placed too high a burden on residents seeking concealed-carry permits. The case means residents no longer have to prove to the satisfaction of police that they have a special reason to want to carry a firearm.
The “good reason” clause had proved to be a major hurdle for city gun owners, sinking 74 percent of concealed-carry applications.
Now the city is preparing for many of those rejected applicants to apply again, as well as others who were reluctant to apply in the first place because of the good reason restriction.
Mr. Lott and other gun rights advocates said those who do obtain a permit, though, should still be wary of carrying a gun in the city, based on laws that severely restrict where they can go with a weapon.
The city’s laws designate areas 1,000 feet from most public gathering spaces such as schools and parks to be gun-free zones, as long as they are identified as such by signage. The law reads: “Any person illegally carrying a gun within a gun free zone shall be punished by a fine up to twice that otherwise authorized to be imposed, by a term of imprisonment up to twice that otherwise authorized to be imposed, or both.” The law says it “shall not apply to a person legally licensed to carry a firearm in the District of Columbia.”
A city police spokeswoman said the law “is a penalty enhancement — not a unique crime — for someone who is illegally carrying a firearm. That would not apply to someone with a valid license to carry.”
But Emily Miller, who chronicled her ordeal through the permitting process to own a firearm in the city in The Washington Times and later in her book “Emily Gets Her Gun,” said she doesn’t trust that assurance.
The D.C. Council “wrote a carry law that makes me study a map every time I move 10 feet,” said Ms. Miller. “Obviously, their intent was to make it as hard as possible for those of us who have carry permits to legally carry our guns in [the District] for self-defense. The criminals roam freely and don’t abide by the absurd carry restrictions, so those of us who carry guns for self-defense should be able to do so as well.”
Nelson Lund, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said he too would be wary of carrying a gun in the city.
The law “is so bafflingly drafted that I suppose it’s possible to read it as only an enhanced-penalty provision, but it’s awfully easy to read it differently too,” Mr. Lund said. “I don’t think I would want to exercise my rights under the Second Amendment while that provision is sitting there like that.”
Whatever the interpretation of the gun-free zones, analysts said, another part of the law has a long list of places where carrying is illegal, including city office buildings; the building, grounds and parking lots of schools; public transportation; hospitals; any place where alcohol is served; sports arenas; and the National Mall and other federal property.
Carrying a firearm in a private residence or house of worship is also presumed illegal.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on whether the city will revisit the ordinances, nor did council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the public safety committee. The council was in a meeting all day over the city’s paid-leave policy.
The U.S. attorney’s office, which is responsible for prosecuting crimes in the city, said it is working with law enforcement on the path forward but declined to comment beyond that.
The District has long had some of the stiffest gun laws in the country, at one time imposing an almost total ban on handguns. That was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2008. The city still imposed tight restrictions on carrying weapons outside the home, but that was struck down by the courts in 2014.
The city then began accepting applications for concealed-carry permits but imposed the “good reason” standard, which gave police a veto over issuing permits to anyone officials didn’t deem needed to be able to have a weapon with them. The good reason clause was struck down by an appeals court earlier this year, and the city accepted that ruling last week.
In the three years the good-reason rule was in effect, the city had received 668 applications for concealed-carry permits and had made decisions on 574 of them. Of those, 130 were approved and 123 were still active.
Another 444 applications were denied — 425 of them because of the good reason clause.
Applicants will be invited to apply again, said a spokesman for the city’s attorney general.
The Metropolitan Police Department said it is waiting for the appeals court to issue its mandate in the case, which should come within a few days. Once that is issued, applications will be judged based on a long list of remaining factors. Those who have been convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor, those under indictment for a violent crime, and those with at least two DUI violations are all prohibited, as are the mentally unstable and the blind.
Police will still require a firearms safety course and range training, and applicants will have to undergo in-person interviews with police.