Washington handgun ban unconstitutional, judge rules

A Washington, D.C. ban on carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional "under any level of scrutiny," a judge ruled.
A Washington, D.C. ban on carrying handguns in public is unconstitutional “under any level of scrutiny,” a judge ruled.
(Karen Bleier / AFP-Getty Images)

A federal judge struck down the nation’s last complete prohibition on carrying guns outside the home, declaring the District of Columbia’s strict handgun ban unconstitutional.

The ruling by a judge in New York, announced late Saturday, is the latest blow to the decades-long gun law in the nation’s capital, which is plagued by violent crime. In a landmark decision in 2008, the Supreme Court struck down the district’s handgun ban, establishing for the first time a personal right to own a weapon under the 2nd Amendment.

Senior District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., a former Army colonel appointed to the court by President George H.W. Bush, ruled that the right to a weapon extended outside the home both for residents and visitors to Washington.


Going well beyond the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller, Scullin found that carrying arms outside the home for self-defense fell within the legal definition of the right to bear arms enunciated in the 2nd Amendment.

In the Heller case, the Supreme Court did not address whether the 2nd Amendment allowed someone to carry a weapon outside the home. The high court has repeatedly turned down invitations to decide that issue.

Scullin, who presides in Syracuse but was assigned the case by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., relied heavily on U.S. appellate court rulings striking down public carry bans in San Diego County and Illinois.

Four plaintiffs and the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights advocacy group, challenged the District of Columbia ban when it was rewritten following the Supreme Court ruling. The revised law allowed police to issue gun permits for self-defense inside the home.

That process effectively prohibited nonresidents from obtaining permits and limited an individual’s right to self-defense, according to the plaintiffs, who challenged the law in 2009.

The case stalled in the crowded federal court system but was eventually assigned to Scullin with the goal of speeding up the process.

Although Scullin found that Washington’s law violated 2nd Amendment rights, he said the government could place “some reasonable restrictions” on the carrying of handguns, such as bans in public schools, age restrictions and mental health requirements.

Such measures amount to a “proper balance” between gun rights and public safety, he wrote in the 19-page opinion. A gun owner may simply decide not to enter a school, he said, and would experience “a lesser burden” on the right to self-defense.

Scullin did not stay enforcement of his ruling pending an appeal, leading gun rights groups to assert that it was now legal to openly carry a handgun in Washington. The city is expected to seek a stay of the ruling from Scullin or a federal appeals court.