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A U.S. District Court judge has ruled D.C.’s ban on handguns unconstitutional. That means starting this week, police will allow residents with a permit to carry pistols in public. While the decision is seen as a blow to D.C.’s strict gun laws, many local lawmakers are already looking to fight the decision. Kojo explores the status of the right to bear arms in the District.
- Alan Gura Partner, Gura & Possessky, PLLC
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, diversity by the numbers. The news and entertainment industry struggled with bringing in a variety of faces and perspectives. But first, a major development in D.C.'s fight over gun rights. This weekend, a federal judge once again struck down a D.C. gun law. Judge Frederick Scullin ruled that the District's ban on fire arms outside the home is unconstitutional.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd starting this week, police will allow residents with a permit to carry pistols in public. Those who support the decision say it only makes sense. The second amendment guarantees individuals can keep and bear arms, and making sure D.C. gun owners can carry weapons in public, they say will make the city a safer place. Still, the decision is seen as a major rebuke to District leaders who have vowed to appeal. Joining me now to discuss the court's decision and what it means for gun laws and D.C. is Patrick Madden. He's District reporter with WAMU 88.5 News. Patrick joins us in studio. Patrick, thank you for joining us.
MR. PATRICK MADDENGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Alan Gura. He is a partner in Gura and Possessky. Alan Gura is one of the lead attorneys in the fight to change D.C.'s gun laws. Alan Gura, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALAN GURAThank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think about the D.C.'s ban on public hand guns being overturned? Is the District a safer place when people can carry pistols in public? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Patrick, a lot of local lawmakers have gotten involved already while the police department is going along with the decision. The attorney general is seeking a stay in the ruling.
NNAMDIAnd some council members want to appeal the decision. You spoke earlier today with Ward 3 councilmember, Mary Cheh. She argues that the District is a special case when it comes to gun laws. Here's what she had to say.
MS. MARY CHEHThe question is, what's a reasonable regulation? It's not the same everywhere. It's not one size fits all. In the District of Columbia, we have, obviously, the capital of the United States. We have all of the federal buildings. We have all of the monuments. We have all of the tourists coming here. We have all of the dignitaries. We have all of the embassies. We have a situation, certainly post 9-11, where the heightened concern about people with guns on the street is extraordinary.
MS. MARY CHEHAnd then on top of that, even the opinion itself, some of the separate opinions talked about, reasonable regulations, are you gonna allow people to have guns at swimming pools, at schools, in parks? The District of Columbia is, in that sense, unique. It would look like Swiss cheese, with more holes than cheese, about the places where you shouldn't have a gun.
NNAMDIShe's talking about the fact that we are also a federal city, Patrick Madden.
MADDENRight. And that, of course, is always one of the big issues when we're talking about the District and gun laws and why the District always seems to be the battleground, whether it was the Heller case or some of the other issues. And it gets back to the fact that D.C. is treated as this federal, you know, enclave. And it has -- there are special considerations. Just earlier this summer, we were talking about a congressman from Kentucky who wanted to dismantle some of D.C.'s gun laws.
MADDENBut on this issue, you have councilmember Cheh sort of expressing -- making the case for why D.C. is different, why it should be able to make its own rules when it comes to this issue of banning guns in public. And as Councilmember Cheh points out, you've got obviously the White House, the Capitol. All the embassies. And trying to make the case that D.C. needs to have an ability to set the parameters for what it's gun control law should be, and obviously, you have the judge in New York with a much different opinion.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, the judge who decided this case usually sits in northern New York. Mary Cheh suggests he doesn't understand D.C.'s unique circumstances. Alan Gura, this is one of the many examples of D.C.'s gun laws being at the center of a national debate. Republican Congressman Thomas Massey of Kentucky attached an amendment to a spending bill recently that would prevent the District from using its money to enforce its local firearms law. Why have D.C.'s gun regulations come under such scrutiny lately, in your view?
GURAD.C.'s gun regulations have come under scrutiny because they are extreme and unusual. There's nowhere else in the country that has a law like this. There was only one other state, until recently, Illinois, which had a complete and total ban on the carrying of hand guns for self-defense. And in a case I handled there, a case called Moore v. Madigan, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that law, struck down the prohibition because if, after all, the Constitution guarantees us a right to bear arms in the interest of self-defense, then however else the government might regulate that right, and we agree, yes, there is a role for regulation to play.
GURAAll the same, that does not mean that the government can entirely abolish for everyone, at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances, a right that is literally spelled out in the text of the Bill of Rights.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to Mary Cheh's argument that D.C. is a special case and that if we had to have regulations identifying all of the places in this federal city where you could not publicly carry a hand gun, it would look more like the holes in Swiss cheese. You wouldn't see the cheese at all.
GURAThat's a silly argument. The fact of the matter is that every city in America has important installations, foreign consulates, the President, members of Congress visit every state in the union. And the gun laws don't change when important people are in town. You know who else is important, Kojo, are the people who live and work in Washington, D.C. And they're important enough to be able to deserve to enjoy their constitutional rights. D.C. is not a Constitution free zone.
GURAThe Constitution applies here with its Bill of Rights fully. And therefore, while yes, there can be some restrictions for so-called sensitive places, that doesn't mean that we should disarm the 600,000 or so people who live here, plus all the others who come visit their nation's capital to work or to have other business here.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. To what extent should D.C. be able to determine its own laws? Do strict gun laws in the District, in your view, violate the Constitution? 800-433-8850. Patrick, you mentioned earlier that this decision was handed down by a judge who usually sits in northern New York. However, he volunteered to sit in this jurisdiction, or in this area for a while. The decision was handed down on Saturday, it took effect almost immediately. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has already ordered her department to comply with the ruling and D.C.'s gun law seems to have changed literally overnight. What exactly did this decision do?
MADDENWell, I think that's the big question, because it's almost -- we've almost had radio silence since this decision occurred on Saturday, in terms of what the city -- how the city's going to respond. I mean, we've had some statements from the police chief, the mayor, and the attorney general saying, we're reviewing this right now. But, you know, we're considering all our options. Our legal teams are looking at this. So, there will be, I think, a coordinated response from the city. But what it means right now, you mentioned it before, basically, the police, how they are treating folks who carry guns -- they're treating it completely different now.
MADDENSo they -- they've issued sort of guidances to officers about what this means, what it doesn't mean. I'm holding it right here. This is a police form, and they list a couple of examples of, you know, what if there's a person from Vermont where -- which doesn't require a license or a permit, and they have a handgun in the District? What does that mean now? In the past, it meant you couldn't have a hand gun. You know, even if you were from Vermont, where it is legal, and you are -- you have a hand gun legally there. Now that's different.
MADDENAnd I know just in this past month, we had two instances on Capitol Hill where people were arrested for carrying a hand gun onto the campus there. So, I think there's gonna be -- this has a lot of changes overnight, in terms of how police are enforcing this, but it's still unclear about what's gonna happen down the road. Does the D.C. council now have to come back this summer and revise its gun laws?
NNAMDIWhat did Mary Cheh say about what the council is capable of doing?
MADDENI mean, right now, they're waiting for the attorney general. I think that's the first step is what will the office of the attorney general do and then, I think, that will sort of set the pieces for what will have to happen next.
NNAMDIThe attorney general is seeking a stay in the ruling. In the meantime, Robert in Washington, D.C. would like his question answered. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTThank you, Kojo. Good afternoon, and thank you for great content.
ROBERTYou're welcome. I am a shop owner in D.C. and a couple blocks away from my shop, an elderly couple was robbed about a month ago. And the husband died of his injuries.
NNAMDIThat's that Colorado Avenue and Kennedy Street NW.
ROBERTThat's correct. In that neighborhood area, yeah. And I'm wondering what right shop owners have to protect themselves against crimes like that. Do we have the right to bear arms?
NNAMDIWell, it depends on if you have a licensed firearm. Alan Gura.
GURAYou can obtain a license from the city, to have a firearm in his or her shop for the purpose of self-defense. The law does provide for that and you should look into that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Robert. Alan, you were the lead attorney for the Second Amendment Foundation. You've helped lead the fight to change D.C.'s gun laws. You say that overturning the District's ban on hand guns is a win for constitutional rights. How does changing these laws help people?
GURAWell, first of all, regardless of whether people like or dislike the Second Amendment, or whether people think it's a good idea to carry guns or not carry guns, I think everybody should support the concept of the rule of law, the idea that the Constitution sets out certain rules that we've all agreed to have our government follow. And that when the government chooses not to follow those rules, there is a place to turn to. There is a federal court which is open for business, which will enforce the law, the highest law of the land, against some local officials who may not be interested in following it.
GURASo, again, regardless of what people might think about the wisdom of this, people should, nonetheless, support the idea that we are a nation of laws, where people can turn to the courts for help in enforcing their civil rights. And this is a very important right. The fact of the matter is that the police cannot be everywhere to guarantee your personal safety. And the Constitution guarantees you the right, if you are a law abiding, responsible person, the right to have access to the means of self-defense. Now, this does not mean that the city cannot enact gun laws.
GURAObviously, the city can regulate firearms in the interest of public safety. However, while we can have a debate about which of those laws are appropriate and which of those laws go too far in infringing upon peoples' rights, the bottom line, I would hope we could all agree on, is that when -- the Bill of Rights spells out, literally, conducts, which is guaranteed as a fundamental right, that the city can't literally prohibit that very specific conduct.
NNAMDIOn to Ed in Washington, D.C. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDHi. I'm assuming that somebody who could legally carry a weapon on the streets of D.C. wouldn't be able to carry it in the Capitol Building, and so I'm wondering why is the Congressman's life more important, that somebody can't carry a gun by his office, but they can carry a gun by my office somewhere else in the city.
NNAMDITo which you would respond, Alan Gura, how?
GURAWell, your life is important, and so is the life of everyone else in the District, which is why we do have the right to have the means of self-defense. Now, the Supreme Court has recognized what I believe to be a very common sense proposition, which is that our certain sensitive places the Supreme Court didn't tell us how to find those places to be sensitive. But they acknowledge that there are certain sensitive places where the carrying of hand guns can be barred. My argument would be that a place becomes sensitive for two reasons.
GURAAnd again, this is not something that the courts have yet addressed. But it would seem to be that you would look for two factors. Number one, will the misuse of firearms in that location cause an unusually large impact upon society? Obviously if people conducting assassinations inside the halls of congress would be quite a catastrophic event in our history. But secondly, also the government has to acknowledge the place is sensitive by providing some kind of special security. You cannot enter the capitol complex without going through some very, very tough security.
GURAAnd so while you are walking inside the capitol complex you should have some peace of mind that the area itself is controlled in some special way by a great deal of police. And that is not the case when you walk down the street. There is no metal detector outside your front door when you go out in the morning. And the government cannot control every single thing that happens. And they don't pretend to guarantee your safety out on the street where the police simply are not there to intervene in every criminal circumstance. That's why people must have the ability to defend themselves. And the constitution guarantees them that right.
NNAMDIEd, thank you very much for your call. Patrick, while the decision is already in effect, there's been a lot of discussions about how local lawmakers will fight it. They've discussed postponing when the ruling goes into effect as well as appealing the decision to get it overturned. How likely is it that an appeal will be successful and what do we expect to happen next?
MADDENWell, I think this afternoon we're supposed to find out what the Office of the Attorney General is going to do. So they're seeking a stay and obviously they're considering an appeal. So we should find out soon what will happen there. I think one other important thing that Councilmember Cheh said when I spoke with her earlier today was sort of the implications for the police force.
MADDENNow, you know, before this ruling if you had a gun, you were subject to be arrested by a police officer. So, I mean, how does that change how police can go about doing their job? You know, how is this going to affect police and public safety overall?
NNAMDIYou know, Alan Gura, do you make a distinction between what you do in a case in Chicago you mentioned earlier or in the District of Columbia and what some national politicians are doing, getting involved in D.C. politics including local laws and marijuana. Why shouldn't the district be able to determine its own gun laws? Do you approve of members of congress simply intervening when it goes against their own ideological orientation?
GURAThe fact of the matter, Kojo, whether I approve of it or not, the Constitution does give congress the power to legislate for the District of Columbia. Now obviously it probably makes sense for there to be some local voice and some control. And we have the Home Rule Act. And I'm not opposed to the Home Rule Act. But regardless of who makes the law, to me it doesn't matter whether congress made this law or whether the mayor and the city council made the law. The law violates the fundamental constitutional rights of American citizens and therefore has to be struck down. Regardless of who enacted it it's not a law that should be on the books in our country.
NNAMDIHere is Marina in Washington, D.C. Marina, your turn.
MARINAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm going to try to get this all out without swearing or sputtering because I don't remember the last time I was this angry. Let me place this in context. Mr. Gura, I am a survivor of gun violence. I was raped at gunpoint. This puts me in very -- in a particular minority but a very clear minority who's rights would like to be protected. And I do not believe -- and I know for a fact that had the incident -- had I had a gun, somebody would have been dead in that incident, that there is no way that I could've protected myself given the circumstances of my case if I had had a gun. You are proposing turning this into a warzone.
MARINAFirst of all, as far as your continuing to go to the constitution, I would suggest you read the entire Second Amendment. The Supreme Court got it wrong. The Supreme Court has been known to get things wrong. Let's take a look at Plessy versus Ferguson, which fortunately was overturned by Brown versus Board of Education. So just because the Supreme Court says it doesn't make it true...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Alan Gura respond because we're running out of time. Marina, thank you very much for your call.
GURASure. I've spoken to rape victims who were very upset that they were disarmed and they felt very strongly that if they had a firearm that things might've turned out for the better. Obviously some people believe that introduction of a gun into their particular circumstances would make things worse. Other people believe that the introduction of a gun into their particular circumstances might make things better.
GURAIn a free country people have that right to make that choice for themselves. And that's something that the constitution does guarantee them. And I think that is a matter of good public policy. The fact of the matter is also there are 44 states out there that generally respect the right of people to carry handguns for self defense in some way, shape or form. And those 44 states look a lot less like warzones than Washington, D.C. does.
GURASo I understand emotions are kind of high on this topic but it's important to note, we do have experience, we have data. We have a great deal of knowledge about what happens in jurisdictions where law-abiding responsible Americans are able to perhaps obtain some training, run a background check, lead objective standards and get a license to carry a firearm. That population, those people who become licensed, are tracked very carefully by the police. Many states that issue these license, you know, keep very close figures of what the outcomes are for those people. And the outcomes are crystal clear.
GURAWe know they don't commit crime.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly but Patrick Madden, we have a statement from Police Chief Lanier that indicates just how much a state of flux this situation is in. It reads, "Unfortunately the recent court ruling has left many unanswered questions. We're meeting with the legal team for the city now to try to get those answers. We will be issuing additional guidance to the force and the public shortly. As soon as we have that guidance ready, we will get it out immediately.
MADDENYeah, so, I mean, that says it all right there. They're definitely looking at this and authorities are trying to figure out both how to -- whether to challenge this and how to implement this ruling.
NNAMDIIt's the fast-moving train. Patrick Madden is district reporter with WAMU 88.5 News. Patrick, thank you for joining us.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlan Gura is a partner with Gura and Possessky, PLLC. Alan Gura, thank you for joining us. Going to take a short break. When we come back, diversity by the numbers, the news and entertainment industry's struggle with bringing in a variety of faces and perspective. Howard Ross is on hand. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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