Turnout Low on First Day of Handgun Registration
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008; 2:44 PM
In the first hours of the first day that it was legally possible to register handguns in the nation’s capital, only one person showed up to do so–and he was turned away because he didn’t bring his weapon with him.
Capitol Hill resident Dick A. Heller, whose lawsuit prompted the landmark Supreme Court ruling that scuttled the city’s strict firearms control laws, arrived at D.C. police headquarters at 6:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the new gun registration process was scheduled to begin. Heller, accompanied by an adviser, was met on the steps of the building by a cluster of camera crews and Lt. Jon Shelton, head of the firearms registration unit. In an animated discussion, police explained to Heller that he needed to show officials the guns he wanted to register — and allow them to be test-fired — as part of the registration process.
Heller’s adviser, Dane von Breichenruchardt, president of the Bill of Rights Foundation, a public interest group, said Heller owns at least two handguns — a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a 9-shot, .22-caliber revolver — and has stored them for years with a friend in Maryland. Although officials said that gun owners in Heller’s situation can bring legally owned firearms from other jurisdictions into the District in order to register them, von Breichenruchardt said he had told Heller not to do so without written assurance that it was permissible.After Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham promised Heller in front of a dozen reporters and news cameras that he would “absolutely not” get in trouble for bringing a revolver into the city, von Breichenruchardt said Heller would do so another day. Neither Heller nor his adviser seemed upset by the delay.
“I think what’s happened here this morning is a misunderstanding of the law, and that’s perfectly understandable,” von Breichenruchardt said. “We’ve got this new law in flux. We’ve got the old law. It’s very difficult to figure out how to even legally bring the handgun into the city so you can apply for the registry.”
Newsham amiably agreed. “Firearms registration is a pretty complicated set of rules and regulations, and they can be interpreted by reasonable people in different ways,” he said. “I’m sure [Heller is] making his own reasonable interpretation. Our understanding of the rule is that Mr. Heller can legally bring his weapon here.” When he does, Newsham added, “we will do the best we can to accommodate him and get him a registration.”
But Heller and adviser angrily criticized the city over other aspects of the handgun ownership and registration process, outlined in emergency legislation that was approved this week by the D.C. Council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
The new law includes strict storage requirements that opponents of the handgun ban say violate the Supreme Court ruling. Gun owners must keep their pistols at home, unloaded and either disassembled or equipped with trigger locks. Weapons can only be loaded and used if the owner reasonably believes he or she is in imminent danger from an attacker in the home.
The city also has continued to ban most clip-loaded, semi-automatic handguns — popular with gun enthusiasts — by including those weapons in its broadly written ban on machine guns, which was not at issue in the Supreme Court ruling. For Heller, Newsham said, that means his Colt .45 cannot be registered.
“It appears that the city does not yet understand the decision and order of the Supreme Court,” said Heller, a 66-year-old a security guard.
Von Breichenruchardt accused D.C. officials of “trying to find as many ways as they can to make the process as difficult and unattractive as they can,” and predicted that the machine-gun ban will lead to more litigation. “Mayor Fenty promised us he would follow the letter and spirit of the law. He has done neither.”
The emergency legislation was crafted after a June 26 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the District’s 32-year-old handgun ban. The decision said the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun for self-defense.
However, because under federal law buyers can purchase handguns only in the states or districts where they live, District residents cannot legally purchase firearms until a licensed firearms dealer sets up shop in the city. D.C. officials said one prospective dealer is in the process of getting a license in the city, and eventually others probably will do the same.
Officials said they expect that most of the gun owners who show up to register weapons in the weeks ahead will be people who illegally kept revolvers in their homes while the ban was in effect and want to take advantage of a six-month amnesty period that begins today.
Others, such as Heller, may have legally purchased revolvers in other states, including Maryland and Virginia, and then left the guns in the care of friends or relatives in those states when they moved to the District. As Newsham told Heller this morning, those guns can legally be transported into the District provided they are taken directly to D.C. police headquarters for registration.
Von Breichenruchardt stressed that Heller did not need amnesty. “The amnesty does not apply to Mr. Heller,” he said. “He is not asking for amnesty, and I do not want him in a position . . . to ask for amnesty. He has never broken the law.”
Eventually it will be possible for D.C. residents to buy pistols in other states by having the dealers in those states ship the guns to dealers in the District for delivery to the buyer.
To begin the registration process, the applicant must bring his or her revolver, unloaded and in a container, to the firearms registration office at police headquarters, 300 Indiana Ave. NW. The applicant must also bring two passport-sized photos, proof of D.C. residency, and a valid D.C. driver’s license or a letter from a physician attesting that the applicant’s vision is at least as good as that required for the license.
An applicant must fill out registration forms, submit fingerprints and pass a written firearm-proficiency test, while police ballistics experts test-fire the revolver. The revolver will then be returned to the owner, but he or she cannot legally use the weapon, even for self-defense, until notified that the registration has been approved.
Before approving a registration, police will conduct a background check of the applicant. There are several disqualifying factors, including a felony conviction or a history of mental illness. Ballistics examiners will compare the test-fired bullets to bullets from unsolved shootings to determine if a revolver was used in a crime.
It is unclear how long it normally will take for police to approve a registration application.
Newsham said if anyone shows up to register a semi-automatic pistol that fits the city’s definition of a machine gun, police will confiscate the illegal gun but will not immediately arrest the owner. He said police reserve the right to investigate and eventually charge such an owner with violating the machine-gun ban.
Von Breichenruchardt called the semi-automatic handgun ban “foolishness” and said it almost certainly will be challenged in court. “The Supreme Court has given its ruling,” he said. “Mr. Fenty and the city council are not above the constitution of the United States. They have to follow the law, the same as all of us.”
As the morning wore on, more people arrived at police headquarters — cops, lawyers, citizens busy conducting their daily business.
A few people went through the entrance marked “gun registry applicants” to pick up written information on how to legally own a gun in the city. But by 9:30, no one had no one brought an actual weapon, or — except for Heller — asked to register one.
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