Mark Snyder, an amateur biathlete, wanted to buy a .22-caliber bolt-action rifle for target shooting and figured the process would take about a week. After nearly six weeks, six visits to police departments and $300 in fees, he secured his rifle.
"I was not expecting a free ride," said Mr. Snyder, 45, "but this is an obstacle course they put in place."
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's 32-year ban on handguns in 2008, a victory for the gun-rights lobby that seemed to promise a more permissive era in America's long tussle over gun ownership. Since then, the city has crafted rules that are proving a new, powerful deterrent to residents who want to buy firearms.
Legal gun owners must be registered by the city, a red flag for many in the gun-rights community concerned that registration lists could be used to confiscate firearms. The District limits the number of bullets a gun can hold and the type of firearm residents can buy. It requires that by next year manufacturers sell guns equipped with a special identification technology—one that hasn't yet been adopted by the industry.
The Supreme Court is now deliberating a case challenging handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill., which are similar to the former ban in Washington, D.C., and is widely expected to side with gun-rights groups. The experience of Washington, D.C., however, suggests a pro-gun ruling by the Supreme Court doesn't mean an end to the matter. Here, the battle over whether residents can own guns has been replaced by a fresh debate over whether lawmakers can restrict legal gun ownership.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting representative in Congress, is blunt about the point of the city's laws: discouraging gun ownership.
"To get them you have to go through a bureaucracy that makes it difficult," she said in an interview. Her constituents tend to oppose firearms because of gun violence, she said. "Nobody thinks we would have fewer shootings and fewer homicides if we had more relaxed gun laws."
Kenneth Barnes, 65, became a D.C. gun-law activist after his son was shot to death in his clothing store in 2001. He supports the city's current gun law. "I have no issue with the right to bear arms," but the Supreme Court's decision gave the city the right to set gun laws for its citizens, he said. "What we're talking about is self determination."
In 2009, the first full year the law was in effect, homicides in the city dropped to 143 from 186 in 2008. The 2009 total was the lowest since 1966.
In its 5-4 decision in 2008, known as District of Columbia v. Heller, the court ruled that the Second Amendment includes an individual right to self-defense. In doing so, it struck down the city's 1976 ordinance that effectively banned possession of handguns. The ruling offered little advice on what level of regulation might be permissible, giving the city room to maneuver within the ruling's broad outlines.
One question now is what impact Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan might have on future gun cases. Her public record on gun rights is limited primarily to positions she held as a Clinton White House lawyer and as a clerk for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. The National Rifle Association has said it has some concerns and will work with the Senate to formulate some "tough questions" for the nominee on gun rights. With the five-judge majority that ruled on Heller intact, Ms. Kagan's impact on gun rights cases could be limited in the near future.
Gun-control supporters say the District is acting within the Constitution, in that Heller didn't outlaw all gun control. "From our perspective, there's a broad range of gun-control steps that can be taken that would be constitutional post-Heller," said Chad Ramsey of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said the city's new rules strike against the spirit of the Supreme Court's decision. "Can you go out and buy guns in D.C. and defend yourself as the Supreme Court said you should be able to? No. The citizens can't experience the freedom from a practical level. What good is winning it philosophically?"
In the months since the Heller decision through April, the city has registered 1,071 guns, including 756 handguns and 315 "long" guns, such as rifles. That's a rate of about 181 guns per 100,000 residents. Before the Supreme Court decision, the rate of registered guns in Washington was close to zero.
Across the U.S., federal law-enforcement agencies estimate the total number of guns is between 200 million and 350 million, which results in a rate between 65,000 to 114,000 guns per 100,000 people nationally. A 2006 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found gun ownership in 34% of all homes.
Right now, the legal advantage lies with the District. In a federal District Court ruling in March, Judge Ricardo Urbina upheld the city's gun law, writing that the Supreme Court didn't rule gun registration "unconstitutional as a general matter." The judge concluded the city had the power to limit the kinds of firearms permissible and the size of ammunition magazines.
Gun-rights groups and several plaintiffs, including Mr. Snyder the biathlete, are appealing the ruling. Mr. Synder joined the lawsuit after calling the NRA to complain about the registration process. Stephen Halbrook, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, predicts the case will come back to the Supreme Court for a second review of District gun laws.
The battle in the District stands in contrast with other areas of the country where gun-rights advocates have been enjoying success. Last month, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law permitting residents 21 years and older to carry concealed weapons without permits. On April 19, armed protesters assembled in federal parks in Virginia, including Gravelly Point Park directly across the Potomac River from Washington, taking advantage of a law signed in 2009 by President Barack Obama that allows visitors to carry loaded firearms into national parks as long as the state allows it.
fter the Heller decision, the District's city council passed the Firearms Registration Amendment Act of 2008.
Under the law, would-be gun owners must go through a process requiring fingerprints, photographs and the detailing of some job history.
Applicants have to take a 20-question test on the District's gun laws and regulations. There is a five-hour class, including at least one hour at a gun range, although the city doesn't have a public one. Buyers are required to find trainers from a list approved by police. There is a vision exam, and once the process is complete, the gun must be taken back to the police to be fired for a ballistic identification.
The registration expires after three years and must be renewed. If it lapses, the police can seize the gun, and for a first offense, the owner could be jailed for up to one year and fined $1,000.
The law designates certain guns as assault weapons that can't be bought in the city. It limits the size of the ammunition-feeding devices to no more than 10 bullets. Many common semi-automatic pistols can hold more than that.
In 2011, the city will require semi-automatic pistols owned in the city to be produced with devices that imprint shell casings with a code or serial number as part of the firing process. That would make it easier to link shell casings to guns. The technology, known as micro-stamping or micro-engraving, is in its infancy, and most manufacturers haven't yet adopted it.
Peter Nickles, the District's Attorney General, acknowledged the law requires technology that "may not exist right now. But if you build it they will come. While we are not there yet, there is a lot of science out there and a lot of development."
Many jurisdictions around the U.S. have elements of the District of Columbia's law, but few have all of them. Only Hawaii has a gun registration process, in place since 1988, as strict as the District's and only California has a micro-stamping law, though it hasn't been implemented yet. Gun-rights and gun-control groups agree the city's law is among the most restrictive in the country.
Attorney General Nickles contends the District is on sound legal footing. "The effort that was made by the city council was to come up with a law that balanced the Supreme Court's requirement that we authorize firearms for use in self-defense in the home with public safety," he said. "I think we struck the right balance."
The city is surrounded by jurisdictions that don't have the same laws as the District, Mr. Nickles said. The result is there is a proliferation of illegal guns in the city. "There's no denying the fact that we have a ******* lot of illegal guns on the streets," he said, but the solution isn't to "arm everyone."
Even without the new law, Washington, D.C., presents obstacles to the would-be gun buyer. There are no gun stores in the city. It has few federally licensed firearms dealers—businesses that can transfer a handgun into the city that was bought elsewhere.
The city changed its zoning laws in 2009 to permit gun stores, but no business has tried to open one, according to the Attorney General's office. Only one federally licensed firearms dealer, C.S. Exchange, is performing transfers to the public. Under the law, handguns bought outside the city must be transferred through a licensed gun dealer in the city.
Charles Sykes, owner of C.S. Exchange, conducts business by appointment only. He estimates fees for registration, testing, fingerprinting and transfers can double the cost of a gun. He doesn't think demand would support a fully operational gun store. These days, he can go weeks without making a transfer. "At first you had a rush of people going down to police headquarters to pick up information" on buying guns after the 2008 court decision, he said. "But they didn't rush to get firearms."
Lenwood Johnson sits on a District advisory commission, a body elected to represent neighborhoods with various city authorities. In January, he talked about owning an unregistered gun in a short article in the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly.
Two days later, he said, the D.C. Metropolitan Police appeared at his apartment on a Saturday and asked to search it. They left after finding nothing.
The following Tuesday, Mr. Johnson, 50, went to the police's gun-registration section and picked up an information packet.
Three days later, police came to his apartment again, with a warrant, after he'd left for work. "They searched every inch, every box, every drawer, the dirty clothes hamper, the cookie jar, and didn't find anything," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said he keeps the gun with relatives in Maryland and decided not to bring the gun into the city and register it. "After what I went through with the District, it's just not worth it." A long-time NRA member, he said he is not an activist and doesn't want to draw attention by raising a ruckus. "I just want to legally own a gun," he said.
Lt. Jon Shelton, who commands the firearms-registration section and gun-control unit, said police went to Mr. Johnson after his public statements that he owned an unregistered gun. "We would be neglecting our duty if we did not."
After the Supreme Court's Heller decision, Lt. Shelton, who has been an officer 22 years, said he expected a "much larger response," than there has been in terms of residents buying firearms. "I had geared up. I anticipated it."
Mr. Snyder, the biathlete, said he contacted the registration division Jan. 20, 2009, about registering a rifle if he bought one. "I wanted to do everything by the book," he said.
He says he was told by police he wouldn't be required to submit to the new training requirements, which didn't go into effect until April 2009. "The steps they gave me were to get the paperwork, buy the gun, have the dealer fill out the paperwork, return the paperwork to the police with a photo, take a test with 20 questions and go through fingerprinting."
He learned later about a safety course he needed. He also had a 10-day waiting period. It took days before an approved trainer called back to set up an appointment. By the time he finished the process, he said, it was Feb. 26, and the $300 in fees he paid had doubled the cost of the rifle.