Bill allows semi-automatics with limited rounds in D.C.
David C. Lipscomb
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson says he will propose regulations Tuesday that would legalize semi-automatic handguns in the District because the stopgap legislation the council passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling "would not stand up to judicial scrutiny."

"The Supreme Court has spoken, and we have to act accordingly," he said. "We are still going to have a strong gun control law."

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said the bill will refine the city's definition of machine guns by using wording from other jurisdictions and the federal assault-weapons ban, which has since expired. The bill also will cap at 10 the number of rounds a semi-automatic gun magazine can hold.

The bill would undercut two federal challenges to the law: a bill in the U.S. House to be considered as early as Tuesday that would relax gun-control regulations in the District, and a lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed by Dick Anthony Heller of the District v. Heller Supreme Court case.

A ruling on the Heller case in June struck down the District's 32-year-old ban on handguns but did not address the city's broad definition of a machine gun, which effectively bans most semi-automatic pistols.

Gun advocates say D.C. officials have been flouting the court's ruling and perceive the bill as a victory.

However, others say the District is still trying to be too restrictive.

Mike Stollenwerk, co-founder of, said he is pleased that the bill would legalize semi-automatic handguns and make them easily accessible for self-defense, but does not like the cap on magazine capacity.

"It may be progress but it shouldn't have to be like this," he said. "It's just another stick in the eye to gun owners."

Most jurisdictions and federal law generally define machine guns as those capable of firing multiple rounds with a single press of the trigger or guns that can be modified easily to do so.

The District currently allows residents to register revolvers, which typically hold six or eight rounds and cannot be modified to hold more. Lawmakers and public safety officials said they want in part to limit gun owners' potential to overpower police.

The bill also will change safe-storage provisions to advisory regulations - meaning gun owners would no longer be required to keep their guns unloaded, locked up or disassembled - but will create criminal penalties for gun owners who give children access to guns.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, said he agrees that the District's gun laws may be too strict to stand up in court but that the council will keep them as tight as possible while still complying with the high court ruling.

"Some of the things you do are not personally popular but you have to ensure their legal soundness," he said.

Mr. Gray also said he has spoken with several council members about the new bill but is not sure how they will vote.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said he is undecided and that he has concerns about the Second Amendment, which addresses the right to own a gun.

"It's an antiquated part of the Constitution," he said. "It's about self-defense, not guns. I don't want us to be the battleground for America."

Council member Jim Graham, a Ward 1 Democrat who has tackled several public-safety issues related to guns, did not say how he would vote but called the issue "very troubling."

National Rifle Association chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox said the District is still trying to find ways to circumvent the court's ruling and that the new bill is a response to federal pressure rather than progress.

"Everything the District has done is a desperate attempt to hold on to a failed and rejected gun-control scheme," he said. "The only reason they're trying to do anything is because they're seeing imminent congressional action."

Residents and other community leaders have been overwhelmingly opposed to the court's decision and have asked the 13-member council to make gun laws as strict as possible.

Ronald Moten, co-founder of the anti-violence group Peaceoholics, said the bill would give more young people access to guns. Mr. Moten also said he is disappointed that the city is not fighting to keep current regulations.

"What do we say to the children when we're giving up in a fight that's for them," he asked. "We're supposed to fight this to the end."

The council in July passed the emergency legislation, which regulates handgun registration, use and storage. It expires in mid-October.

The District's handgun case has attracted national attention and has led to legal challenges against restrictions on handguns in other parts of the country. The NRA has filed lawsuits in several cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, to challenge their statutes.