D.C. Mayor Responds to Supreme Court Ruling on Handguns

The Supreme Court held its highest-profile ruling until the very last day of the very last week of its session. The ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller effectively overturned D.C.'s current ban on keeping loaded handguns in the home, a policy instituted in 1976 to address the city's abnormally high crime rate. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the ban made it "impossible for citizens to use [guns] for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional."

The Heller ruling was the first major Second Amendment case decided by the high court in almost 70 years and hung on a 5-4 majority. The amendment states that citizens' rights to own guns are necessary to form a "well regulated militia," but the city's lawyers argued that the Constitution's framers probably didn't have D.C.'s high gun-violence rate in mind when they wrote the text. Attorneys for Dick Heller, the federal security officer at the center of the case, who was prohibited from keeping a loaded gun in his house, argued that the text is very clear, and that Heller's rights had been unconstitutionally infringed.

The existing ban requires those authorized to carry a weapon—like security guards—to have a license, and it prohibits loaded guns from being kept in one's home. The Heller decision didn't nullify the entire policy. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters that the ruling only addressed handguns kept in the home and that the city would likely open a gun registry within the next few weeks, as well as give away free gun-safety locks to anyone who registers a weapon. The ruling will also require officials elsewhere to restructure policies. Chicago, for one, has a similar ban on handguns that will be affected.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is now tasked with lifting the city's ban and coordinating new policies with law enforcement to deal with the legality of handguns in D.C., a city with one of America's highest crime rates. (Although the ruling only applies to handguns in the home, carrying a concealed weapon is still illegal without authorization.) In an exclusive interview, Fenty spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone about the ruling and the city's plans to comply. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Where were you when you heard? What was your reaction?
Adrian Fenty: I was at City Hall when I heard the ruling. We knew it was going to be a close vote. We were hoping it would be 5-4 our way. We lost by one vote, but it's hard to argue with the process and we certainly respect the judges' authority to make the decision that they did. We don't necessarily agree with it, but now we'll draft regulations that conform to it.

What kinds of regulations?
There are a couple of different ways this can go. We'll take the full three weeks [the time allotted by the court to comply with their ruling].

Cities like Chicago and Boston, which both have strict gun laws, will be looking toward your administration to see how you handle this. What else will you do?
I don't want to jump ahead of some really solid legal drafting that's about to occur. Suffice it to say that there's some narrow aspects to the ruling. One, it really only applies to guns in the home. That's a huge narrowing. It's not saying that anyone can carry guns anywhere in the District of Columbia. It's just saying that you can have a handgun in your home for the purpose of self-defense. Of course even that can be, and should be, well-regulated, making sure people have passed significant background checks and such before a gun license is issued, to make sure there's a reasonable standard in place to keeping the gun safe when it is in the home. So I think that even within the ruling today, there's ample opportunity to try to make it as safe as possible to District residents, and that's what we're going to do.

You said earlier there was near-unanimous disappointment among the District's 600,000 residents. Does this ruling mean that D.C. will be less safe?
There's no objective way to measure that, but I would say to the residents of the District of Columbia that putting more guns in the city's borders leads to more crime. That's, I think, what the District residents have communicated to me pretty vociferously and consistently since I've been mayor. Any opportunity to prevent guns from coming into the city should be jumped on. Any entrance of guns is worrisome for law enforcement. It's my job to not only make sure that the city doesn't get any less safe, but gets more safe. We'll figure out how to do that not just by drafting regulations in compliance with the Heller decision, but through other initiatives we have going on.

Critics of the ban say that it was never really effective, that the number of homicides and gun-related crimes actually went up since the ban was instituted in 1976.
That is actually not true. You can measure that objectively. Somewhere in the mid- to late '80s and mid-'90s, we were way over 400 homicides, maybe close to 500. The last two years, we've averaged—and this is way too much, obviously—in the 170 to 180 range. So you see pretty consistent[ly] homicide going down. If the point is that there's way too much violent crime, we agree, but there's obviously a lot of societal issues that play into all that. Those issues need to be addressed as well. What you find now is a plethora of guns in the city, which makes it easier for a pretty common domestic dispute or a robbery gone bad to end up in some type of violent shooting.

Is there validity to the point that residents will be safer with the ban lifted?
That certainly is not the position of law enforcement. And I, as a non-expert, often defer to law enforcement. Law enforcement thinks a couple of things. Just like in Chicago or in any other city you name, it's handguns, which are so easily concealed or sold or stolen. They move from legal to illegal in a blur and end up in the hands of criminals. So, by making it easier to have a handgun in the District of Columbia or any city, you're making it easier for a criminal to get a hold of it.

What about the argument that it'll be easier to defend yourself if you have a gun in your home?
There's probably one or two situations when someone would use a handgun in self-defense. But for every one or two situations like that, there's at least 20 where a handgun in the home is used against someone in the home who innocently owns the home. Or it can be an accident. We just had a case about eight or nine days ago where three 13-year-olds were at home playing with a gun at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning and one of them was killed by the gun. All the evidence shows that they were just trying to pass it from one to the other, and it went off and killed one. From my recollection, there's been two instances like that since I've been mayor, [in] 18 months. And I cannot recall an instance when someone has had to use a handgun against someone in their home to prevent themselves from being killed. So I think we're dealing with some real public-safety issues.

What does this mean for your job? Do you see this as an added challenge?
It's now part of a bigger challenge that mayors like [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and [Boston Mayor Tom] Menino are dealing with in their cities, and that is how to keep guns out of the city. And more importantly, how to keep them out of the hands of criminals. I think we had a strong law that was supported by the residents. The law has been weakened a bit with this ruling. But I think there are ways to keep it as strong as possible while still abiding by what the Supreme Court has ruled today.

The people who aren't supposed to have the guns likely already do, regardless of whether it's legal. Is it possible to draft regulations targeting criminals specifically? Or do you think you'll draft the new policies more broadly to affect everyone?
That's a good question. I don't think we would ever draft a law in which we would single out any particular person or group. But we're trying to keep as many guns out of the city as is humanly possible. That's a general policy here that's important for cities like D.C. However, we absolutely want to prioritize keeping them out of the hands of criminals.