Guns in the Streets of the Nation’s Capital


In yesterday’s Washington Post, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier described the steps that she and her Metropolitan Police Department are taking to address rising gun violence in the city. As she rightly points out, the police force cannot solve this problem alone. And as she says, in the long term “the best way to prevent crime is to create economic opportunity and provide services.”

But in the short term, more can and should be done to regulate the use of guns in the District–through rules that enhance public safety while at the same time protect the right of self-defense. To its credit, the D.C. Council has adopted such rules. But they have been challenged in federal court.

As a result, on November 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral argument in a case concerning the District’s right to regulate the carrying of concealed guns on the streets of the city.

A District Judge Overturned the District’s Concealed Carry Law

The case is Wrenn v. the District of Columbia. In Wrenn, the plaintiffs argued before Federal District Judge Frederick Scullin that the Council violated their Second Amendment rights by requiring them to show “good cause” for carrying concealed weapons outside the home. The rationale for the Council’s legislation–which was based on expert opinion and the advice of local police officials–was that the unrestricted carrying of concealed weapons in the city would lead to substantially higher rates of aggravated assault, rape, robbery, and murder.

The plaintiffs’ response to the Council’s legislation was that under the Second Amendment, they have an unlimited right to carry guns anywhere they like, and that this is true even if the Council is right that this will lead to substantial increases in crime. As plaintiffs’ counsel argued in his brief: “Even were Plaintiffs to stipulate that carrying handguns is [a] net negative for society, so what? It is also, like many controversial policies, enshrined in the Constitution.”

The bad news is that Judge Scullin agreed with the plaintiffs and declared the Council’s action unconstitutional.

The D.C. Circuit Has Questioned the Judge’s Authority

The good news is that at oral argument before the D.C. Circuit, Judge Scullin’s action was called into question. In fact, all three Judges on the panel expressed doubt whether Judge Scullin had authority to act in Wrenn at all. That is because Judge Scullin is a visiting Judge from New York, and he was never officially assigned to Wrenn, as the law requires.

This is precisely the kind of case where a local judge should make the decision–one challenging the legality of a locally-adopted rule designed to protect the safety of local residents. For that reason alone, it will serve the public interest if the D.C. Circuit sets aside Judge Scullin’s decision and return the case for a local Federal Judge to hear the matter.

It will also serve the public interest if a new Judge has a chance to correct two fundamental errors in Judge Scullin’s decision: his refusal to accord proper deference to the Council’s determination that their “good cause” requirement will protect public safety and national security, and his apparent acceptance of the plaintiffs’ argument that the Second Amendment requires local governments to permit the unlimited carrying of guns–even if that might undermine safety and security. We don’t think the authors of the Second Amendment would have said “So what?” to such an outcome.

With Mounting Concerns Over Public Safety, Another Chance to Get It Right

We live in dangerous times in the District. Recent Washington Post polls make clear that  D.C. residents are concerned about crime in the city, and are concerned also about the proliferation of guns. And in the wake of the events in Paris, both local and national officials are increasingly concerned about weapons on the streets of the Nation’s Capital.

DC Appleseed and several other organizations filed an amicus brief in Wrenn explaining why the determinations made by our local elected officials about these issues are entitled to considerable deference by the federal courts. If the D.C. Circuit sets aside Judge Scullin’s decision, the new Judge in the case should accord them that deference. Doing so can protect both public safety and the Second Amendment.

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