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Navigating D.C. Gun Laws

The district issues its first gun permits, but the process is under fire

Washington D.C., says Mark MacDougall of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is “widely considered to have some of the strictest gun regulations in the U.S.” “Simply put, it’s against the law to carry a firearm in the District of Columbia,” says Bernie Grimm of The Law Office of Bernard Grimm. D.C.’s stiff stance dates back to the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, which banned residents from acquiring handguns and automatic and semiautomatic firearms. Owners who had previously registered guns were exempt, but they were required to keep firearms unloaded and at home. Things have loosened since.

Looser Gun Laws

On June 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the ban on owning handguns in D.C.; they were, however, still restricted to the home. “If I saw someone getting assaulted in the street, I couldn’t take my gun outside or fire it into the air,” says criminal defense attorney Mark Schamel of Womble Carlyle.  “I would be breaking the law.”
In July 2014, the U.S. District Court for D.C. ruled in Palmer v. District of Columbia that the prohibition on carrying a handgun was unconstitutional, and despite talk of appeals, the Metropolitan Police Department began taking applications last fall. Spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump says that as of Jan. 30, 70 D.C. civilians have applied for a conceal permit; 11 have been approved.
But gun owners claim the policy is still too restrictive, and the Palmer plaintiffs are currently challenging the district’s permit process in federal court, MacDougall says.

Navigational Cues

Schamel offers these notes:
  • The Metropolitan Police Department’s website includes registration procedures as well as a link to the online Firearms Safety Training Course and to lists of acceptable registered firearms.
  • Gun owners and prospective owners are photographed and fingerprinted, and background checks are required.
  • A new handgun bought outside the district must be transferred through a Federal Firearms Licensee, and there’s a fee.
  • A district resident with an existing gun must bring the unloaded firearm to the police department for registration. Don’t bring ammunition, call ahead and go directly to the registration site and home. Advance notice and a direct route are potential safeguards in case you’re pulled over and a law enforcement officer sees the unregistered gun.
  • Nonresidents with permits in their home states must apply for D.C. permits, even if only passing through.

For more information on firearms registration, second amendment rights, and D.C. gun laws, see our civil rights overview.

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