ILA | District of Columbia: Don’t Blame the Pandemic for Our Gun Laws – They’ve Always Been Awful

Gun News

Americans across the country are grappling with the “new normal”of COVID-19-related closures and the novel ways that anti-gun politicians capitalize on the pandemic to prevent the exercise of Second Amendment rights. For residents of the nation’s capital, though, the new normal is pretty much the same as the old normal, where local politicians treat lawful gun businesses with the same enthusiasm they have for the coronavirus.

For starters, there is no place to legally purchase a firearm in the District of Columbia because there are no federal firearms licensees (FFLs) that make retail sales of guns to the public. Any gun dealer that wants to open up shop in Washington, D.C. faces stringent zoning laws that severely limit the location of a “firearms retail sales establishment.”

D.C. law also requires that residents register their firearms with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The registration process must be successfully completed before a buyer may take lawful possession of a purchased rifle or shotgun. For handguns, the process requires that the dealer selling the firearm ship the handgun to a licensed dealer in the District, where the sale is completed and the firearm released to the buyer upon registration. In addition to the District’s other fees, the buyer is liable to pay the local dealer a $125 transfer fee.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a December 2019 list of FFLs in the District of Columbia shows exactly seven entries, two of which are for the ATF itself. Of the remaining five licensees, four are for dealers in firearms (Type 01 licenses). These licensees include Charles Sykes Jr., gun control activist Josh A. Sugarmann, and the Shakespeare Theatre, Inc.  

For years, Mr. Sykes has been the only licensed gun dealer available to process transfers of handguns in D.C. Its draconian zoning laws meant that when he lost his lease in 2011, he had to temporarily close his business because he was unable to get approval for alternative locations. As District law forbids firearm transfers between unlicensed individuals, that left residents with no legal means by which to purchase handguns.   

Prompted by a lawsuit, the District eventually agreed to lease Mr. Sykes a room inside the MPD headquarters so residents would have access to a local FFL. (The MPD location was not compliant with the zoning law, so an emergency amendment of the District’s zoning regulations had to be made.)

This March, however, Mr. Sykes quit.

Because there is no other commercial FFL operating in the District, residents are now required to go through the MPD as the local middleman-FFL. There is no indication of the processing or wait time under this new procedure, but the fact that a government agency is providing the service doesn’t mean residents get a break on the transfer fee. The MPD charges $125 per handgun, plus the District’s other fees.

Obviously, if D.C. treated gun stores as what they are –legitimate constitutionally-protected businesses that are, moreover, subject to extensive federal oversight and control –there would be no need to encumber local law enforcement or enforce an arduous and expensive process against lawful gun buyers.  

On April 20, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser advised that the current arrangement will stay in place until there is a “viable commercial alternative licensed to operate in D.C.” 

Unless Mr. Sykes resumes his business operations, we predict that’s not likely to be anytime soon. The D.C. government’s extreme hostility to firearms has scarcely abated since it appeared as the (losing) defendant in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Second Amendment case. As we’ve observed before, it’s easier for District politicians to pretend that lawful gun owners are somehow to blame for the gun violence in D.C. Speaking to residents in 2015, Mayor Bowser made her own feelings clear: “You have a mayor who hates guns. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have any handguns in the District of Columbia. I swear to protect the Constitution and what the courts say, but I will do it in the most restrictive way as possible.”

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