D.C. Council Member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) joins Kojo and Tom Sherwood to chat about her upcoming fight for re-election.
As President Barack Obama pushes new gun measures nationwide, he need look no further than Washington for some of the toughest gun laws in the U.S. But in 2008, the Supreme Court struck down D.C.’s handgun ban, and a recent appeals court decision raises questions about its ban on carrying concealed weapons. Kojo talks to plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case and an author of the gun laws about what lessons the country can learn from the District.
- Phil Mendelson Chairman, D.C. Council (D)
- Tom Palmer Senior Fellow and director of Cato University at the Cato Institute; Co-Plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia
- Gillian St. Lawrence Georgetown real estate investor; Co-Plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia
- Keith Alexander DC Crime and Court Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In the aftermath of the tragic Newtown shootings, President Obama announced an initiative to reduce gun violence. He wants to spell out who can own a gun, restrict the types of guns people can buy and limit the rounds of ammunition they can load into their weapons.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor a firsthand glimpse of those measures in action, the president need only look out his own front door. The District of Columbia has some of the strongest gun laws in the country and has a long history of passing them, revising them and enforcing them. In fact, the most recent Supreme Court ruling on gun laws struck down a D.C. ban on handguns. The court established a Second Amendment right to have a gun in your own home for self-defense.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo the District changed its law. As the nation gears up for a far-reaching debate over gun control, we'll explore what the country can learn from D.C. about balancing individual rights and public safety, about passing gun control legislation, respecting the Second Amendment and reducing gun violence in the nation's capital. Joining me to examine the lessons of D.C.'s gun laws is Gillian St. Lawrence. She is a Georgetown real estate investor and co-plaintiff in the Heller v. District of Columbia. Gillian St. Lawrence, thank you for joining us.
MS. GILLIAN ST. LAWRENCEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Tom Palmer. He is senior fellow and director of Cato University at the Cato Institute and another co-plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia. Tom Palmer, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM PALMERIt's a pleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned, you were one of a group of District of Columbia residents who challenged the city's handgun ban and won. What did the ban say, and how did the Supreme Court rule in the case District of Columbia v. Heller?
LAWRENCEWell, essentially, we were banned from having functional handguns in our homes. We had no way of defending ourselves and exercising our Second Amendment rights.
NNAMDIWell, the city did have a law that said you could own a rifle, I think, it was in your home, but it had to be disassembled. Is that correct?
PALMERDisassembled, trigger lock, unloaded in a locked box, so not a functional device for self-defense in your own home.
NNAMDIGillian, you grew up in a military family and moved to Washington to attend Georgetown University. What was your experience with guns at the time when you arrived in Washington?
LAWRENCEWell, it was in one of my first government classes at Georgetown University that I learned that handguns were banned in the District, which, growing up all over this country, I was shocked by that. We assume everyone has the Second Amendment right, and they can exercise it. So as a, you know, single female at the time, I decided to go and start the process of getting a shotgun in the District which was quite challenging at the time.
NNAMDIAnd that was your first encounter with the District's gun laws.
NNAMDIIs that what led you to become a plaintiff in the Heller case?
NNAMDITom, why did you -- you first decided to get a gun, and how have you used a gun in self-defense?
PALMERWell, I have used a handgun in self-defense. I'm alive because I did. I was...
NNAMDII think I know the story, but tell it again.
PALMERWell, I was assaulted with a friend by a group of young men, 19 or 20 -- I didn't stop to get an exact count – who promised to murder us. They were going to kill us. I remember the phrase, "They'll never find your bodies." And I told my friend to run. We ran. I got to under a street lamp, and I turned and faced them with a firearm and said, don't come any closer.
PALMERNo, it's not like in the movies. No clever one-liners. It's as terrifying, scary thing. They backed up. I said, you just go the other way on the street. They did, and we survived the encounter. I'm very grateful that my mom gave me that handgun, and I had it at the time that I needed it. I was also surprised and shocked to learn that in my own home, I couldn't have a firearm for self-defense in the District.
NNAMDIHave you ever fired a gun in self-defense?
PALMERNo. Fortunately, I've never discharged a weapon on another person. I, of course, go to the range and practice. But that's not the point. The point of having a firearm is not to shoot people. It's to defend your life, to maintain distance between yourself and someone who's threatening to kill you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. What part of the District's gun laws would you change if you could? 800-433-8850. Gillian, you live in Georgetown.
NNAMDIWhy do you feel like you need a gun for self-defense there?
LAWRENCEWell, in any urban area, it's not perfect. There are crimes. And people break into homes anywhere in the city. And especially if you're, you know, a female, people can prey on you. You want the option to defend yourself in your own home if someone is trying to harm you.
NNAMDIHave you ever had to use your gun in self-defense?
LAWRENCEThankfully, no. You know, that's the goal. But I feel a lot better knowing that I'm able to do that.
NNAMDIThe Heller case argued that the Second Amendment gives people the right to use guns to defend themselves, and the Supreme Court agreed. After the ruling, the District of Columbia changed its gun laws, lifting a 30-year-old ban on owning a handgun and allowing people not only to own a shotgun, but to keep it in functioning condition in your own home. First you, Tom, how did you respond to the new D.C. gun laws?
PALMERWell, I responded very affirmatively to the Supreme Court's decision affirming the Constitution. I think that the D.C. government, though, has continued to make it very difficult to law-abiding citizens to acquire the means of self-defense. They have dragged their feet on this. They've made it harder and harder to obtain a firearm.
PALMERAnd I think that they should be held to account for this. They are making it more difficult for people to defend themselves. One of the shocking examples is the possibility of prosecution of a man who used a firearm about, I don't know, 10 days ago. A little boy was being torn to pieces by three pit bulls. He went out, used his handgun and killed one of the dogs, and then...
NNAMDIA police officer killed the other two.
PALMERThat's right. He was the first responder. Probably that boy is alive now or at least all in one piece because he did that. And, of course, the D.C. government is now contemplating whether to prosecute the man for use of a firearm. It wasn't in his home after all. And I think that's an example of the insensitivity of the D.C. government to the needs of citizens just to defend their lives.
NNAMDIWant to get back to that in a second. But, Gillian, how did you respond to the Supreme Court ruling and the new D.C. gun laws that you go out and get yourself a handgun?
LAWRENCEAbsolutely. That was the first thing I did, and it's also what my husband did and what my father did who lives in the District. So we all went out and got our handguns and enjoyed spending some time at the range with that. And then from there, it's trying to, you know, continuing this fight so that we really truly do have our full Second Amendment rights because there are a lot of obstacles that are still on the way.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Gillian St. Lawrence. She is a Georgetown real estate investor and a co-plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia. Another co-plaintiff joins us in studio. He is Tom Palmer. He is a senior fellow and director of Cato University at the Cato Institute. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you live in the District and own a gun? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, tell us why you think you need that and how you feel it helps top protect you.
NNAMDIBut, Tom, you were already in the process, in a way, of explaining another aspect of D.C.'s gun laws because you're involved in another lawsuit challenging a different part of the D.C. gun law. Explain the difference between keeping and bearing a gun and why you believe people who own guns legally should be able to bear them or carry them around with reasonable limits.
PALMERWell, that's very important.
NNAMDI'Cause I was not sure whether the individual who shot the pit bull was being prosecuted or was being -- or there were speculation about him being prosecuted because either, A, the gun he used was illegal, or B, the fact that he took it out of his home meant that he was there for bearing arms, which is illegal in the District.
PALMERThat has not been clarified at this point.
PALMERUnder either one, if it was illegally unregistered or being borne outside of the home, he would have potentially very serious legal consequences. I'm concerned more about the second one, that the use of a firearm to defend yourself or a small child could be illegal. I had actually an experience last year, 5 a.m. I was awakened by a bloodcurdling scream, like a movie scream of a woman. And it -- when that happened, I was bolt upright in bed. I thought this woman being raped or assaulted. I got one of my handguns, threw on a pair of shorts and ran outside.
NNAMDIYou mean you were naked when this happened?
PALMERAlmost. I was shirtless.
PALMERBut I said...
NNAMDII was just checking.
PALMER...I certainly had a pair of shorts on. I ran outside. I looked in the alleyway, nothing there. And then my -- saw that my neighbor's door was open. A man had just bolted out, had gotten into her apartment and attempted to rape and assault her. The police, of course, did show up later, which is normal. I don't fault them for that. They can't be everywhere.
PALMERThat's why I have a handgun for self-defense. And I was armed. And the police officer said, well, are you armed? And I said, I'm in my home, officer. This is a condominium, and I own this. And he did back down quite appropriately, but it was a bit tense. But I didn't want my neighbor to be brutally raped and murdered. That's one of the reasons (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWhen you appeared with a handgun, did the attempted rapist run off?
PALMERNo. He had already just bolted out the door due to the bloodcurdling scream and the fact that life started going on in the building.
NNAMDIOK. 800-433-8850 to join this conversation on the lessons that we learned from D.C.'s gun laws. I will start with Rusty in Washington, D.C. Rusty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RUSTYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I love your show. I want to know when the responsible gun owner becomes an irresponsible gun owner. At what point does that happen?
NNAMDICould you be more specific?
RUSTYMore specific? When is -- when does a gun owner a responsible gun owner, not a vigilante?
NNAMDIWhen is a responsible gun owner not a vigilante? I might be able to answer that, but we'll have Tom Palmer do it.
PALMERWell, that's a -- that's actually not that difficult. Responsible firearms owners should mean you don't go around brandishing your -- you don't threaten other people. Those are all legally actionable criminal behaviors and appropriately so. A firearm is for defense. And as I mentioned, it's to keep distance between you and someone who means harm to you. The law is very clear on this. This is really not a questionable issue. If someone has a firearm and uses it inappropriately there are and should be legal consequences for that.
NNAMDIRusty, allow me to put a situation to you. My understanding of vigilante is that someone who seeks to take justice into their own hands. So if you discover that there's something missing from your car and you suspect that you know the person who stole that from your car, and then you go and get a handgun and you attempt to intimidate that person or, even worse, shoot that person as a result of what you think that person did, for me, that would be a vigilante action, for you?
NNAMDIWhat would you consider irresponsible use as a vigilante?
RUSTYI just - I don't know. I have an unrealistic...
NNAMDIWell, I raised the question with you because somebody...
RUSTYI do have an unrealistic world vision of global disarmament, and that's -- I believe an advanced society is a peaceful society. I know it's unrealistic. I know some people may think it's unorthodox even, but that's my vision. I don't think we need to go around killing people with firearms.
NNAMDIOK. I do understand, Rusty, but I don't want to go as far as the kind of global vision. But, Gillian St. Lawrence, there are people who feel that if somebody is unarmed and breaks into your home to take your property and you shoot that person with a handgun, that is an excessive response. And some would consider that some form of vigilantism.
LAWRENCEWell, it depends on which state it is and whether those -- there's, you know, the Castle laws. But if someone -- it comes down to someone's threatening you and you feel that you're going to be harmed. And when you're a female, you know, there could be a lot of situations where you're -- someone's threatening to harm you, and it might be appropriate to respond with that.
LAWRENCEI -- one thing I wanted to mention with this that seems to be getting ignored by the caller is there are many legitimate uses for hunting and recreational purposes and for target practice where people who own firearms. And it really has nothing to do with getting in a situation where you could potentially harm someone else. There are ways that, you know, aren't, you know, necessarily violent between two people that you can use a firearm and that they shouldn't forget that.
NNAMDIAfter the horrible shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Obama proposed national gun laws with some of the same restrictions the District of Columbia has. Did those shootings change your views about gun control, and what lessons do you think the rest of the country should take from D.C.'s experience with gun control? First you, Tom Palmer.
PALMERWell, I think the first point is that we need to have solid and serious information. This is an important public policy question that we face. And when the president made his statements, he unfortunately -- and I'll give him the benefit of the doubt -- was misinformed by his staff, made a lot real howlers, utterly false claims. The Washington Post just called him on one of them, the claim that 40 percent of firearms are sold through unlicensed dealers without background checks.
PALMERThat's false. That is simply a false claim. The Washington Post gave him two Pinocchio's on that one. They were being a bit generous. There should have been three. The claim was factually inure. The other claim he made was that the background checks have kept 1.5 million handgun -- guns out of the wrong hands. That's also not true. Ninety-four percent of those initial denials from the background checks were false positives and were, within a few days, withdrawn by the BATF.
PALMERMost of the rest were withdrawn after additional information. It's like saying president -- that Sen. Kennedy was stopped multiple times from getting on airplanes because of false positives. You know, it turns out there's a terrorist with the same name. Imagine the president saying, we kept four terrorists off of airplanes. That's essentially what he said. In fact, out of those 1.5 million, you know how many people ended being prosecuted? Thirteen. So if he had gone and said, we kept handguns out of the hands of 13 people during this 20-year period, that would've been a little bit different from 1.5 million.
NNAMDIGillian St. Lawrence, your response to the Newtown shootings. Did it affect your view of gun control at all?
LAWRENCEWell, it affirmed what I already believe, but it also makes me realize how important it is to truly have good, law-abiding citizens there to protect people, who, you know, for example, innocent children. You know, you need people there that have handguns, that have to -- that can respond and protect people that can be put in danger. And if, you know, if, for example, the state of Virginia wants to have armed guards in their schools to protect children, that's what we're going to have to look at. And that's what I thought before. Now, it's even more obvious.
NNAMDIHere is Keith in Silver Spring, Md. Keith, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHGood afternoon, Kojo. How are you doing?
NNAMDII am well.
KEITHI'm calling in response to a few questions. First of all, being a sufferer of a minor neurological disorder, some would claim I would have a mental disability.
KEITHIt's nothing serious. But it -- one of the attributes of it is a extreme sensitivity to sound.
KEITHAnd sometimes that has put me into bouts of extreme stress and anger.
KEITHBut I have ways preventing that, seeing a therapist -- occupational therapist. Currently, I'm employed full-time, and it's a profession I love. I am an electrician. But...
NNAMDIIf you're asking more specifically what is there likely to be in proposed legislation that would prevent someone with your specific condition from being able to own a handgun, my answer is I don't know. Let me ask Tom Palmer.
PALMERYou know, that's an interesting question. Some people have suggested that we should make a national registry of people who have undefined set of abnormalities and forbid them from owning firearms. I think that's really grotesque and foolish. There should be...
NNAMDIIs that your concern, Keith?
KEITHI actually had one other concern. I had a shooting right across the street from my house. This was a few months ago over the summer on (word?). And it really shook me because I woke up to gunfire in the morning. This is something that had never happened to me. And although it was the police shooting a victim, I'd like to know the security of myself when I'm, you know, I drive to dark places early in the morning, and sometimes I work late into evening.
KEITHAnd I could find myself in some of the more shady parts of town. And I just would -- I was wondering...
NNAMDIWell, you know what, Keith, after we take a short break, we will be joined by Phil Mendelson. He is the chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia. I hope he's listening already because he might have a more specific response to whether an individual such as yourself would be able to own a handgun in the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIBut thank you very much for your call. We're going to take the aforementioned short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation, adding Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. Council, and Keith Alexander, D.C. crime and court reporter. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on what we can learn from D.C.'s gun laws. We're talking with Tom Palmer. He's senior Fellow and director of Cato University at the Cato Institute and a co-plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia. Gillian St. Lawrence is a co-plaintiff in that case. She's a Georgetown real estate investor. We'll be talking shortly with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. I'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to email@example.com. Here is Joe in Richmond, Va. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEGood afternoon. Well, yeah. I pretty much coincide with everything your two guests said. Like the one guest said, cops can't be everywhere all the time, absolutely true. You know, the other issue is with the one caller that was talking about he's into peace and all that. I am too as well. But the bottom line is you got your nutcases like the kid that shot up at school up in Connecticut, and then you got your garden variety thugs which are everywhere like your one guest said. You can live in the best part of town.
JOEYou'll never know what's going to happen or when it's going to happen, whether you're in your own home or, you know, walking down the street. Here in Richmond, Va., we had a lady, in broad daylight on Broad Street, got hacked to death by some guy that wasn't on his meds like he should have been. And apparently he wigged out and hacked her up with a butcher knife. Now, what are you going to do, outlaw kitchen butcher knives? And the sad part of it is there were people standing around watching it. That's how gutless our society is.
NNAMDIWell, you know, when we talked with D.C. Crime and Court reporter for The Washington Post Keith Alexander, he'll tell you a little bit more about what he's been actually seeing in courtrooms in the District. We got an email. And thank you for your call, Joe. We got an email from Terrence in Germantown, who says, "I was a victim of an armed robbery by two youths in Germantown. I never saw a gun, but the threat was implied. I screamed for help, and the robbers ran away.
NNAMDI"They got a few dollars and a bunch of credit cards that I later cancelled. No one died. Lethal force was not necessary. Are either of your guests capable of dealing with such a conflict without using their gun to escalate the situation?" What say you, Gillian St. Lawrence?
LAWRENCEWell, you don't know that in advance. You don't know if suddenly those two people are going to turn violent. If you're female, you don't know if they're going to attempt to attack you and rape you. You have to go and be able to defend yourself based on the individual situation.
NNAMDIBut I guess what this emailer, Terrence, is saying, Tom Palmer, is that in his case, use of a handgun in that situation may have been premature and unnecessary.
PALMERThat may be the case. My view is not that you should go around brandishing firearms, but there are many occasions when people's lives had been saved because they had a firearm. But if someone threatens my life -- someone says, I have a gun and I'm going to kill you, I take that threat very, very seriously. Sometimes the wiser thing to do -- I've been held up at gunpoint also, by the way, an illegal firearm in the hands of a criminal, and I gave my wallet. That was the right thing to do.
PALMERPulling another gun on him wouldn't have worked in that case. He had the gun pointed at my belly about eight inches away. I gave him my wallet, exactly right. But there are lots of other occasions, like with my neighbor and when I was assaulted and told I was going to be murdered, where a handgun is the difference between life and death.
NNAMDIJoe, thank you for your call. Joining us now in studio is Keith Alexander. He is D.C. Crime and Court reporter with The Washington Post. Keith, good to see you again.
MR. KEITH ALEXANDERAlways a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIKeith, it's my understanding that the number of homicides in the District of Columbia was down last year. What's the trend, and what types of homicides are taking place?
ALEXANDERWell, the trend is in 2012, D.C. saw 88 homicides, and that's down significantly. You know, in 2011, there was 108, and in 2009, 140 homicides. So the -- obviously, it's not just D.C. Montgomery County, Prince George's County, lot of other surrounding neighborhoods are also seeing a decline in homicides.
ALEXANDERAuthorities are attributing the decline to several reasons, one, criminal gang activity is decreasing that the police have been able to infiltrate and break up a lot of these violent gangs, particularly in parts of Washington, D.C., in Northwest and Southeast. In addition to that, another reason is that we're seeing an increase in technology that the police are using. They're using video cameras throughout parts of D.C. that are capturing a lot of the crimes, as well as license plate readers.
ALEXANDERThey are able to quickly identify who individuals are by scanning license plates around the neighborhood. So we're seeing a lot of that. Most of these crimes are gun related. By vast majority, or should I say the minority number of cases are homicides involving, you know, stabbing victims and beating up victims -- fatalities. But still the majority of these homicides deal with handguns or an assault weapons.
NNAMDITalk about the kinds of guns that are being used in crimes of violence in the District.
ALEXANDERWell, again, we are seeing a lot of cases involving 9mm. We're seeing semi-automatics. That's very alarming. Just recently, we had a case whereby we saw an assault rifle that was used. And a lot of your listeners will probably remember the case back in 2010 where five individuals in a rented van...
NNAMDISouth Capitol Street?
ALEXANDER...on South Capitol Street, a guy pointing a semi-automatic rifle out of a window and just shot down people who were standing on a street corner who were just attending a funeral, killing five teenagers. What's very interesting and what prosecutors have now started doing is that oftentimes, you have individuals who are taking pleas or plead out to a lesser charge to get less time to avoid going to trial.
ALEXANDERBut what prosecutors are now doing that is part of that plea, they don't only just want, why you did the crime, who was involved in the crime, but they also want, where did you get the gun, who supplied you with that gun? And if they cannot go and get that person off the street, in other words, if that information are not credible...
NNAMDIYou don't get your plea deal.
ALEXANDERYou don't get your plea deal.
NNAMDIJoining us now by telephone is Phil Mendelson. He is chairman of the D.C. Council and author of D.C. gun control laws. Phil Mendelson, thank you very much for joining us. Chairman Mendelson, are you there? Can you hear me?
MR. PHIL MENDELSONYes. I said thank you for having me on.
NNAMDIOh, you're welcome. Congress wrote the first gun law for the District of Columbia in 1934. It was still on the books when the D.C. Council approved the city's Firearms Control Regulations Act in 1975. Describe, if you will, the city's handgun ban and how you revised it after the Supreme Court's Heller decision.
MENDELSONWell, what we had done in 1975 was to prohibit almost anybody from having a handgun. Heller struck that down in 2008, so we had to allow individuals to have a handgun if they wanted in their home. We've kept a registration system, but what we did was to use registration as a way prohibiting people who were in a high risk of using a gun for violence from being able to register a gun. Anybody who's been convicted of a felony cannot register a gun in the District. Anybody who has been convicted of domestic violence cannot register a gun in the District.
MENDELSONAnyone committed voluntarily or involuntarily to a mental institution cannot register a gun in the District. Anybody convicted of multiple DUIs cannot register a gun in the District. Some of those are lifetime prohibitions. Some of them are within the last five years since the conviction took place, and so to that scheme, we are restricting to -- restricting those who are more likely to use a gun violently from being able to possess a gun.
NNAMDIWe had a caller earlier in the broadcast who had a specific mental health condition that I cannot exactly explain. It has to do with hearing sounds in an exaggerated way. But he wanted to know if D.C.'s gun laws or the proposed federal law would prohibit someone like him. How are mental health issues covers in -- covered in D.C.'s gun law?
MENDELSONWell, again, it's just there's a commitment voluntarily or involuntarily. I couldn't speak to the particular illness that the caller referred to, but as you know from the discussion nationally, it's pretty clear there's a link between mental health -- let's say schizophrenia, which is rather severe -- and gun violence. And so we -- it's simply one who has an illness like that would not be able to register a gun.
NNAMDIHow has allowing handguns in private homes affected crime in the District as far as you know, Chairman Mendelson?
MENDELSONWell, you know, in the national debate, there are those who hate registration and hate gun control who say that if everybody possessed a gun, then criminals would be afraid, and they would not use guns criminally. The research doesn't bear that not at all. I mean, the research is very clear that arming the citizenry is not going to reduce crime despite the anecdotes that are brought out. There are more anecdotes on the other side of that argument.
MENDELSONI believe that registration is important because it is a way that the police can distinguish the law abiding from the criminal element. The law abiding register their gun. So when the police stop somebody and they find a gun in the car, if there's not a registration certificate, then that person can be arrested. Without registration, the police can't do that, it becomes more difficult to determine whether the person has criminal intent.
NNAMDITom Palmer, do you know of any significant research that you can cite about the effect of having handguns in the home and how it affects violent crime.
PALMERWell, these are complex matters. What we had seen is a general decline in violent assaults around the country, so not just D.C., but this is actually nationwide trend. And it has coincide within...
ALEXANDERWell, except for Chicago.
PALMERWell, except for Chicago. That's right.
MENDELSONAnd a couple of other cities.
PALMERAnd by the way, those are gang-related violence, overwhelmingly. And let's be frank about this, it's the drug laws that are driving this in which we create such massive profits for gangs and they become armed to be able to fight off other gangs and control turf. That's the great bulk of these murders, and there needs to be a public policy response to that.
NNAMDIWhat the Cato Institute would consider the drug prohibition laws.
PALMERAbsolutely. Prohibition is what is killing thousands and thousands of young Americans every day.
NNAMDIKeith Alexander, anecdotally here, the Supreme Court said District residents have right to have a gun in their home to defend themselves. How often do you see cases that involve self-defense with a firearm?
ALEXANDERThat's a great question, Kojo. You know, what we have not seen -- we have not seen any stories recently or any cases where individuals have pulled out a gun during an attack or a robbery or burglary. But I guarantee you that's going to change because what we have seen -- while homicide numbers have gone down, the number of home burglaries have gone up.
ALEXANDERWe're seeing more people in more cases where individuals are kicking down doors of homes throughout the city. And it has been surprising that these people have not -- and, actually, a lot of these cases involve when people area actually home when these break-ins occur. And so what we've noticed is that what we're looking for is see what's going to happen when somebody actually kicks down a door.
NNAMDIWell, in five years, it's my understanding, so far, it hasn't happened.
ALEXANDERIt has not happened. That's correct.
MENDELSONI'm not quite following this, but the research is clear that the presence of guns does not reduce crime. But the presence of...
PALMERYou're wrong on that.
PALMERIt's just not true.
MENDELSONWhat the presence of gun does do is there's a much higher incidence of suicide and accidents. And so what we -- you know, so the policy that we've pursued here is to try to ensure that those who have a gun are those who are most likely to handle the gun safely and not handle it criminally. Now that's what our scheme is. One thing that I think is important in this debate is that what works in Washington, D.C., probably isn't necessary in Wyoming or in Utah.
NNAMDIWell, both you and the District's metropolitan police chief, Cathy Lanier, have said the District is unique in its need for strong gun laws because of all the national and international officials who live and visit here.
MENDELSONAbsolutely, absolutely. I do want to throw out one other statistic. The gentleman did note that the bulk of violent crime is committed with guns, and there's truth to that. But what we have seen in the District is not only a drop in violent crimes over the last five, six years, but a greater drop in the use of guns involving -- guns -- using guns in crimes. So...
NNAMDIAnd you attribute that in the District to the gun control...
MENDELSONI don't -- no, I don't attribute that to smart policing. I don't think that the -- our gun control law -- you can draw a direct cause and effect, and that's what people try to do. So we had a ban on guns for 30 years, and crime went up in the District because of the ban? I think that's way too simplistic...
MENDELSON...and now the people -- the -- you know, I just think that's too simplistic to try to draw that cause and effect. The causes of crime are far more complicated and...
PALMERWe can agree with that, but I just want to talk about this issue of you keep saying studies show. That is not the case. You are wrong on that. We have seen a huge increase, actually, in legal firearm ownership in the United States coinciding with the fall in violent crimes, including crimes involving firearms.
NNAMDIWell, I guess...
MENDELSONYou're absolutely right, and it's -- there's no cause-effect that's been shown. And the 4th Circuit -- and I think it was the 4th Circuit -- in Chicago struck down their carrying ban, and I disagree with that. They concluded that, you know, the research doesn't show that these laws -- I disagreed with their interpretation, but the point was that the research just doesn't show that...
MENDELSON...there's an increase or a decrease because of these laws.
MENDELSONI come back to the reason why we have registration in the District so that the police can easily separate the law-abiding you've registered your gun from the criminal element you have of registering your gun.
NNAMDIAnd the tweet that we got from Richard specifically about that, Rich says, "I have to disagree that the District is making it harder to obtain firearms. I found it much easier to register mine. D.C. requires gun owners to register their weapons but recently simplified the process," Phil Mendelson. How does registration help the police department when someone is stopped with a gun?
MENDELSONBecause under our registration law, you have to have a registration certificate with your firearm. You're not allowed to carry a gun in the city, and what that means -- you can't have it in your pocket. You can't have it strapped to your belt. You can't have it open in your car when you're driving around. Basically, you can transport a firearm the same way that the federal law permits between states, and that's typically unloaded and in the trunk of the car, locked in a gun case. That's typically the way to transport it.
NNAMDIWell, you just mentioned Chicago, as we did here. Last month, the federal appeals court struck down a statewide ban on carrying concealed weapons in Illinois. D.C. is the only other jurisdiction with a total ban on being armed in public. How will that ruling affect D.C.?
MENDELSONWell, I don't know what's going to happen with that ruling. I read it. I was quite surprised at the reasoning, which I thought was flawed. Let's just say that that is upheld. I think the District has -- I don't think the District has unique circumstances because, as the nation's capital, we have a large number of federal officials and diplomatic officials who are traveling about the city all of the time.
MENDELSONIt is impossible for the police to provide security without significantly ramping it up, basically making the city an armed camp. It's impossible to provide security if people are allowed to carry in the District.
MENDELSONAnd that's why we have a carrying prohibition. We set that forth pretty clearly in the legislative history of our recent changes to the gun law. And there are so many instances where diplomats or federal officials...
MENDELSON...have been shot at or otherwise attempts at assassination in the District that -- I mean, we're...
NNAMDII'm about to quote that because I'm going to ask Tom Palmer to reply, then we're going to have to take another break, this from the D.C. Committee on the Judiciary earlier this year, Tom Palmer. Two presidents have been assassinated by handguns in the District. Three presidents have been shot or shot at with pistols in the District and that Congress is not exempt from these threats. In September 2010, U.S. Capitol police shot a man after he brandished a weapon at them near the Capitol.
NNAMDISomebody was arrested with a rifle after -- near the Capitol after inquiring about President Obama's whereabouts. Over the last five years, according to arrest data provided by the police department, between one and six individuals have been arrested every year for possession of unregistered firearms within two blocks of the White House and another one to six individuals within three blocks of the U.S. Capitol. Does that make the District of Columbia different enough for you?
PALMERNo, and I'll tell you why. It's a very simple matter. I do not discount the importance of these issues: maintaining the security of the president of the United States, Congress, foreign diplomats and so on. When we are talking about allowing the District of Columbia to register and license concealed carry, we're talking about people who go through the background check.
PALMERAll the people that were mentioned, these are crazy criminals. These are people who don't qualify for these kinds of permits any place in the United States. Try to find data, and I challenge the councilman. People with concealed carry permits who go through training, who go through extensive background checks do not commit these violent crimes.
PALMERThey're the most peaceful people you could imagine, exactly the ones you want to arm.
NNAMDIWill the District of Columbia consider concealed carry permits, Phil Mendelson?
MENDELSONWell, we did consider it a few years ago, and we clarified the law to make it impossible. I mean, think back to the inauguration, the inaugural parade. The gentleman may be correct that statistically people with concealed carry permits in those states where there is a rigorous background check. And let me be clear.
MENDELSONThere are some states where they are not clear -- they're not careful about that at all. But in those states where they really are restrictive, statistically, yes, those folks are not at higher incidents of committing crimes. But go back to the inauguration where everybody who came within a block of Pennsylvania Avenue had to go through security, you know, metal detectors.
MENDELSONI couldn't have my coffee thermos with me to be within a block of the president and his inaugural -- the inaugural route. So how do the police ensure that there is -- there's safety for all of the federal and diplomatic officials who are traveling, many of them -- most of them without very much security? And they want now...
MENDELSON...to be traveling with a lot of security when people can be carrying a handgun.
NNAMDIGillian St. Lawrence...
MENDELSONAnd how do the police know the difference between me, who got a permit to carry concealed weapon, and you, who didn't get a permit to carry a concealed weapon? I suppose I could stop, and they can interview me...
NNAMDILike I said, I got to take a short break, chairman.
MENDELSONThey don't have time for that.
NNAMDIBut, Gillian St. Lawrence, you get the last word here. From a purely personal standpoint, how do you feel about concealed carry?
LAWRENCEWell, we have people who have guns illegally, and, of course, law-abiding citizens don't want people to, you know, crazy people or felons, to have guns. So enforce those laws. And then for the law-abiding citizens, if we can arm ourselves, that's a deterrent. No one wants to go and break into a house if they know that the homeowner has a gun.
LAWRENCENo one wants to attack you if they know that you are trained and you are, you know, concealed carrying. This is very simple here. And if you're talking about the inauguration, aren't you walking through metal detectors to make sure that, you know, you don't have -- that -- we have...
LAWRENCE...plenty of arms people, and...
NNAMDII'm afraid I got to take that short break now. Chairman Mendelson, thank you so much for joining us. Phil Mendelson is chairman of the D.C. Council and author of D.C. control laws. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the lessons we can learn from D.C.'s gun laws. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on lessons learned from D.C.'s gun laws. We're talking with Keith Alexander. He is D.C. crime and court reporter for The Washington Post. Tom Palmer is senior fellow and director of Cato University at the Cato Institute and a co-plaintiff in Heller v. District of Columbia. Gillian St. Lawrence is a co-plaintiff in that case. She's a Georgetown real estate investor. And many of you have called, so I'll try to get to the call as quickly as possible. We will start with Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I work in the District of Columbia, and part of my work is being armed in addition to doing emergency medicine. And the place that I work is the Federal Reserve. If I stepped off of the Federal Reserve to save someone's life, I will be immediately charged with several felonies for carrying a firearm on my hip. But when I'm inside the Federal Reserve, that government agency that I work for, I am able to carry a firearm. I and my colleagues are able to carry firearms without any problem. I think that's ridiculous.
NNAMDIWell, I think it's interesting because, Keith Alexander, members of the Metropolitan Police Department are allowed to carry their firearms whether they are on duty or not in the District of Columbia, right?
ALEXANDERThat is correct. That is correct. But they also have to be responsible for those firearms. Even U.S. Marshal -- there was a case recently of a marshal whose firearm was stolen off him. He had his firearm in his vehicle. Someone broke into the vehicle and stole that firearm. And he was -- got into a lot of trouble. And I think he lost his job because he was supposed to have that firearm on him and not in his vehicle.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom. We got an email from Melissa in Chantilly, who said, "At the top of your show, you mentioned that it was much more difficult to get a gun in D.C. Could you or one of your panelists go through what the process is of getting a gun in D.C. and answer why getting a gun should not be a bit difficult? Thank you." Care to go through that, either Tom Palmer or Gillian St. Lawrence?
PALMERWell, just very quickly. There is only one federally licensed firearms dealer in the District, so you have to go through only one person. There is not the multitude. I don't expect them to be issuing any more licenses in the District. And when that person retires, there's quite a great likelihood they'll just say, oh, what a surprise. There's not a single dealer in the District.
LAWRENCEAnd it drives up the costs, I mean, 'cause that one person can kind of charge whatever they want for you to...
PALMER$175 additional fee for purchasing a firearm. So if I were in Virginia, there is no additional fee. If they say it costs $600 for the gun, that's what it cost. In D.C., I can go to Virginia, order the firearm. It's sent to the single dealer in the District. I go to him. I give him $175 additional, so that's a big increase in price. And some dealers won't ship to him because there've been problems in the District with theft of firearms from the postal service.
PALMERSo it's really become much more difficult to obtain a legal firearm in the District. And the D.C. government is quite deliberately squeezing it and making it harder for law-abiding people to obtain firearms. The police registration has become easier. That I certainly do grant. The police have been quite cooperative in this regard.
LAWRENCEVery different than 10 years ago with my shotgun, I do have to say.
ALEXANDERBut we're also talking about legal purchasing of guns. And what I...
ALEXANDER...the case that I see, that I report on at The Post, these individuals obviously are not buying their guns legally. They are getting their guns underground, which is a huge market in Washington and surrounding counties where people are buying these guns. People with felonies, of course.
ALEXANDERPeople who have mental illness issues are buying -- are able to secure of these guns, which is why when these individuals are stopped, one of the first question that they're asked when they're arrested as a part of a plea deal is where you got these guns because they're really trying to crack down and to stop that underground market.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Carl, who says, "How many weapons do your guests keep in the house? How do they keep their weapons safe in their homes? Do they also have alarm systems in their homes that could call the police?" Gillian St. Lawrence.
LAWRENCEI have an alarm system, and I have a number of firearms. The handguns are kept...
NNAMDIAny children in the home?
LAWRENCENo. The handguns are kept in lock safe where we punch in a code to be able to open it.
NNAMDIWhat's the code? No, I'm just kidding.
LAWRENCEI'm not giving up that one. And I have my shotgun that is in a case, and it's actually unloaded. But I have two rounds close by that I can put in if need be.
NNAMDIIn your case, Tom Palmer?
PALMERActually, I'm not going to answer that question. That's like saying, what's your address, where do you live and what's...
NNAMDIWhat's your code?
PALMER...what's the code on your front door?
NNAMDIBut you do keep -- you do -- you can assure our listeners that you keep your gun safely in your home?
PALMERAbsolutely. They are safe. I don't have any children. These are very serious issues about proper control of a firearm. They're not just sitting around. I know where they are, and I'm able to use it if I would have to do so, as I did with my neighbor, who was assaulted by a rapist in her apartment.
ALEXANDERLet me follow up on that question with Gillian if I can.
ALEXANDERWhy do you need more than one gun?
LAWRENCEOh, well, one is a shot -- they're for very different purposes. I have my shotgun, which, you know, is great for hunting, and I take it out, you know?
ALEXANDERYou -- you're a hunter?
LAWRENCEI have not been hunting yet, but it's on my lists of -- it's popular with my family now. But that's next on my lists to do. And then with the handgun, what's nice about it is it's better for home defense. It's, you know, not quite as large as the shotgun, and it's the most common and most popular way to have yourself...
ALEXANDERSo you only have two guns?
LAWRENCEThat's what I have. And then my husband has his own 'cause only one person in D.C. can be licensed on each firearm. So technically it's illegal for my husband to touch my guns and illegal for me to touch his guns.
NNAMDIHere is Jamie in Fairfax Station, Va. Jamie, your turn.
JAMIEHello. I was a student a Virginia Tech in 2007 during the shootings, and then I went on to write my master's degree on gun control. And your guests actually sound like very responsible gun owners, which I love hearing. So my question to them was the -- are there any restrictions for any laws that you would find acceptable regarding guns? Or are you of more the classic stereotypical NRA ideology that any restriction is unconstitutional and a violation?
PALMERNo. As with all constitutional rights, there are legitimate regulation as to time place and manner. What we had in the District was a ban on the ownership of a handgun. That's like saying, no religion is allowed in the District. As opposed to reasonable regulations, you can't make the church bells go off at two o'clock in the morning to wake up all the neighbors. Those are normal restrictions.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. Also, Gillian St. Lawrence, for reasonable regulation or unrestricted?
LAWRENCEYeah. You don't want crazy people or felons getting guns into their hands.
LAWRENCEIt's very simple. It's why we have a Second Amendment right.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from someone who said, "Mental illness is not a predictor of gun violence. Prior violent behavior is the only reliable..."
PALMERAbsolutely. That is exactly correct.
NNAMDITom Palmer, he's a senior fellow and director at Cato University. Gillian St. Lawrence is a Georgetown real estate investor. They are both co-plaintiffs in Heller v. District of Columbia. Keith Alexander is D.C. crime and court reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening.
ALEXANDERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
D.C.-based writer Paul Goldberg recently published his first novel, "The Yid." We talk with him about the story, how living in D.C. shapes his work and his 'day job' overseeing the influential Cancer Letter project.
Julette Saussy was hired by D.C. government less than a year ago to oversee reforms in the city's troubled fire and emergency medical services department. But she recently announced that she'd be quitting the post - and she says the department's failure to change is putting lives in danger.
Concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus have escalated - both among those who may be traveling to affected areas, but also now locally, where three cases were recently identified.