Ruling Clears Way for More Lawsuits Against D.C. Ban on Carrying Guns
WASHINGTON — A federal judge’s ruling last week cast the District of Columbia back into disputes over gun rights at a time the murder rate is renewing calls for legislative reform.
The judge ruled the District of Columbia must compensate six people who were arrested for violating a ban on carrying handguns shortly before a local gun law was overturned by a court in 2014.
The ruling is likely to clear any legal obstacles to allow similar lawsuits by about 4,500 people arrested under the statute.
The D.C. Council has tried several times to enact laws restricting or banning handguns but has run afoul of gun advocates who win lawsuits based upon Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
They included the 2008 landmark District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, in which the Supreme Court said residents can own guns they keep in their homes for protection despite any contrary local laws.
Again in 2014, the District of Columbia lost when a federal judge said residents do not need to show a “proper reason” to own a gun, such as fear of impending injury or protection of valuables.
Attorneys for the District of Columbia had argued the city needed a tight gun control law while confronting a high crime rate and trying to protect key federal employees and buildings.
The 2014 ruling was upheld on appeal, which prompted six residents to sue the District of Columbia after they were arrested for lacking a “proper reason” to carry a gun.
The ruling last week comes at a time homicides in the District of Columbia are up 9% compared with last year. Nationwide, homicides increased 30% in 2020 compared with a year earlier, according to an FBI report last month.
Lawmakers and psychologists blame economic collapse, frustration and depression caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, the Supreme Court opened its new term Monday with a major gun rights hearing scheduled for next month.
The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and two men are challenging a New York law that requires applicants for gun licenses to show a “proper cause” to prove their need to carry a gun outside their homes.
One of the plaintiffs who was denied a license was concerned about a flurry of robberies in his neighborhood. The second man said his “extensive experience” handling guns safely should have allowed him to win a license.
New York officials said the men’s explanations lacked adequate evidence they would properly use guns only for self-defense.
The issues in the New York case are substantially the same as in the District of Columbia case in which Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that bans against carrying guns in public and arrests of nonresidents with gun licenses in their home states “go to the core of the Second Amendment.”
“The District violated the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment rights by arresting them, detaining them, prosecuting them, and seizing their guns based on an unconstitutional set of D.C. laws,” Lamberth’s written opinion said.
The lead plaintiff is Maggie Smith, a North Carolina nurse who was stopped during a routine traffic stop on June 29, 2014. She told police she was carrying a gun licensed under her home state laws.
Police arrested her, made her spend the night in jail while prosecutors charged her with violating the local gun laws. The charges later were dropped but Smith’s gun remains in police custody.
In ruling for Smith and the other plaintiffs, the court said the local laws make it “effectively impossible for any person to carry a gun beyond the home” in violation of the Second Amendment.
Nearly half the people arrested under the District of Columbia law were non-residents, according to evidence presented during the lawsuit. Charges were dropped against all but about 1,900. Nevertheless, most of the arrestees spent the night in jail.
The case is Maggie Smith et al v. District of Columbia, U.S. Dist.Ct. – D.C., Case No. 1-15 – cv – 00737 – RCL (Sept. 29, 2021).
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