No guns yet for D.C. residents

Times Staff Writer

Days after the Supreme Court ruled that residents of the nation’s capital can keep handguns at home for self-defense, George Harley walked out of a Maryland gun shop disheartened, his goal of legally having a gun to protect his family put on hold.

Since before Harley, 30, was born, the District of Columbia has restricted its residents’ ownership of handguns. After the high court’s ruling was handed down late last month, Harley was one of several dozen Washington residents who came to the Atlantic Guns shop in Silver Spring, Md., just over the district line, to ask about buying a gun.

They were all told the same thing: Go home.

“Presently, there’s no change to anything,” said Atlantic Guns owner Stephen Schneider. “There’s no procedure in place for them to purchase a handgun because regulations haven’t been written.”


Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has vowed to have the strictest gun laws possible, and the city’s plans for the registration process, expected to be released in about two weeks, is being closely watched.

“If the mayor was smart, he would have kept his mouth shut,” said Deborah Curtis, co-owner and general manager of Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Va., referring to Fenty’s vocal support of strict regulations. “It just got people up in arms. He should have just let it play out.”

On Tuesday, District of Columbia Council member Phil Mendelson introduced legislation to put the city in compliance with the Supreme Court ruling by allowing residents to have handguns in their homes for self-defense. Under normal circumstances, the bill, which has unanimous support, would be voted on in September, after the council returns from a summer break, but action could come sooner if emergency legislation is introduced, said Jason J. Shedlock, an aide to Mendelson. The council’s last session before the recess is July 15.

Even after guidelines are finalized, though, it’s unclear how long it will take for Washingtonians to legally have handguns in their homes.


For instance, the federal ban on the transport of firearms across state lines means that gun shops outside the district could sell to a city resident, but the buyer could not leave the store with a weapon. The seller would have to transfer the gun to a federally licensed dealer in Washington, and the buyer would pick it up there. But there are no federally licensed gun shops in the district, police said.

Nor does there appear to be a rush by gun dealers to open a shop in the city. The firearms registration section of the Metropolitan Police Department has received only a trickle of inquiries. As of Thursday afternoon, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the first contact for anyone wanting to open a gun shop, had received no applications, said Mike Campbell, a spokesman for the Washington field division.

If city officials “were to impose regulations [for opening gun shops] that imposed bureaucratic hurdles, they would face legal battles,” said Robert A. Levy, a constitutional scholar at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy research center. Levy recruited the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case and served as co-counsel. “If we find that those requirements are too burdensome, it would be a . . . violation of the court’s ruling.”

Curtis, whose gun shop is about 30 miles west of the Capitol, said she wouldn’t consider opening a store in Washington. “For the average gun shop owner, you’re not going to get rich selling,” she said. “We don’t live like that Nicholas Cage movie, ‘Lord of War’ ” -- the story of an illegal arms dealer.

Bernie Conatser, owner of Virginia Arms Co. in Manassas, Va., said he watched the Supreme Court decision closely, but not strictly for business reasons.

“I don’t think we had anything to gain from a financial perspective, at least in the short term,” he said. “But the decision will have a far-reaching impact on 2nd Amendment rights.”

The Supreme Court ruling has intensified a long-standing debate in the city, which battled a high crime rate both before and after the 1976 gun ban took effect. Last year, 181 homicides were recorded, a significant decline that came amid a national decrease in violent crime.

Harley, who lives in northeast Washington, just inside the district, said he wouldn’t describe himself as a gun enthusiast. If he really wanted a gun, he said, he would be living a mile away in Maryland.


But he said he remembers when the city was dubbed the “murder capital” in the early 1990s.

He reads the newspaper daily, he said, and hears about home-invasion robberies. And if something like that happens in his home, he said, he wants the security of a firearm to protect his wife and his 5-year-old daughter.

“Sit and wait,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”

As he walked his dog in the Dupont Circle neighborhood Tuesday evening, another city resident, Costa Tsantalis said that he once opposed the gun ban -- but that was before he was a police officer in Norfolk, Va.

“I used to say, ‘We should let the good guys have them, too,’ ” Tsantalis said as his Rhodesian ridgeback-pit bull mix eyed a squirrel. “But just seeing the staggering stupidity of people and their inability to control themselves, even good people, changed my mind.”

Still, he said, he wants to buy a handgun for self-defense as soon as the law allows.