A federal appeals court in Washington today upheld the constitutionality of this city's ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but the court said certain firearm registration requirements need further review.
The case is the sequel to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 2008 that struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handgun ownership. The high court ruling said residents here can own handguns in their homes.
The plaintiffs in the latest case challenged District laws that require registration and prohibit assault weapons and magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds of ammunition. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina in Washington ruled for the government in March 2010, upholding the city's handgun restrictions.
In a divided opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said today the District had authority to adopt the challenged gun laws, and a majority of the judges on the panel upheld as constitutional the ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
Stephen Halbrook, the Fairfax, Va., solo practitioner who argued for the plaintiffs, including Dick Heller, said the plaintiffs are discussing the next steps in the case. Halbrook said it's too soon to say whether the plaintiffs will ask the full court to hear the dispute. We're pleased with a part of it and displeased with other parts," he said.
Writing in dissent, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said the ban on semi-automatic rifles and its gun registration requirement are unconstitutional. Semi-automatic handguns, Kavanaugh said, are used far more often in violent crime than are semi-automatic rifles.
“There is no meaningful or persuasive constitutional distinction between semi-automatic handguns and semiautomatic rifles,” Kavanaugh said. “Semi-automatic rifles, like semi-automatic handguns, have not traditionally been banned and are in common use by law-abiding citizens for self-defense in the home, hunting, and other lawful uses."
Lawyers for the District, including Todd Kim, the top appellate lawyer in the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, said the handgun registration requirement will give police officers a heads up when they approach a house during an investigation.
Kavanaugh dismissed that concern, calling it a "Swiss-cheese" rationale. Police officers, the judge said, "obviously will assume the occupants might be armed regardless of what some central registration list might say."
Judges Douglas Ginsburg and Karen LeCraft Henderson, the panel majority, noted that the Supreme Court ruling in D.C. v. Heller said “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” The court upheld as constitutional the mere registration of handguns only.
"[T]he basic requirement to register a handgun is longstanding in American law, accepted for a century in diverse states and cities and now applicable to more than one fourth of the Nation by population," Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
The majority ordered further review of novel restrictions that include a ballistics-identification provision, a one-pistol-per-30-days rule and the requirement that an application appear in person and re-register each firearm every three years.
The majority court said "the record is inadequate for us confidently to hold the registration requirements are narrowly tailored."
On remand, Ginsburg said, the District's attorneys will have a chance to articulate "in greater detail how these governmental interests are served by the novel registration requirements."
Gun control advocates heralded the D.C. Circuit ruling. Dennis Henigan, the acting president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement: “Today’s ruling refusing to strike down any of Washington, D.C.’s strong gun laws is a decisive blow to the gun lobby’s extremist claims that there is a right to be armed with AK-47s and large-capacity assault clips."
Henigan said the Brady Center is confident the trial court will uphold the District's other gun laws.
Updated 2:46 p.m.