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D.C. Folds In Gun Rights Battle

 (Emily Miller - Washington Post) - Give the Council of the District of Columbia some credit. They're actually responding to criticisms about how the city's gun laws are being implemented.

The council’s Judiciary Committee chairman, Phil Mendelson, used his oversight powers to force the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to make changes over the past two weeks so that officers would properly explain and enforce the three-year old firearms’ laws.

My series has exposed how the MPD’s firearm registry office has been misleading the public about the gun laws, but the police department refused to admit fault or make the necessary modifications. Finally, I approached Mr. Mendelson about the problems.

The At-large Democrat presented many of my complaints in a letter to Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier on April 9.

Mr. Mendelson instructed her both on fixing the implementation of current law and how to change methods to reflect the revised gun law which passed the council on April 17 and will cut some of the red tape in the registry process.

So MPD has begun making the changes needed to be in compliance. Most significantly, the department updated its website and gun registration documents to correct the mistakes.

Here are the firearms issues raised in my series, along with Mr. Mendelson’s oversight efforts and the MPD’s response:

1) Police experts on gun laws are not knowledgeable about the city’s firearms laws and thus giving out false information to the public. Also, the firearm registry office’s 22-page guide to gun laws and its website give out print false information on transport laws.

Mendelson letter to MPD: “There have been media reports that officers in the Registration section are informing applicants and registrants that they must go directly to or from a firearm-related activity and that stopping for gas, to use the restroom, or for a meal would be breaking the law.” He also notes that “the registration packet provided to applicants includes incorrect or misleading information regarding lawful transport requirements.”

Result: A spokesman said that an addendum to the registration package that has been posted online and is provided at registration.

The registration packet document now says: “In light of concerns recently raised that the guidance did not address every possibility, the most reasonable alternative appears to be presentation of the law governing transporting and carrying lawfully registered firearms as codified in the District of Columbia Official Code. Those provisions are set forth below. For further interpretation or guidance, you may wish to consult with an attorney.”

D.C.'s law is modeled on federal law, which allows for transporting a firearm between two places where the owner can legally possess and carry a gun as long as it is for a lawful purpose and is properly stowed.

Hopefully, this updated presentation will provide gun owners with more legal certainty when transporting firearms through the city.

Unfortunately, MPD continues to refuse to acknowledge its officers were giving out false information, which was clearly documented in this series. I recommended in this story, that Chief Lanier give her officers proper training on the correct gun transport laws in order to prevent false arrests.

A spokesman for MPD denied this was necessary saying, “I checked with folks internally and with prosecutors and determined we aren’t making arrests of people with registered firearms who meet the requirements of DC Code [firearm laws].”

When the new law goes into effect in two months, police will use that opportunity to clarify all the laws to its force. A spokesman explained that, “rather than sending out different training information a few weeks apart, it would be more clear to send out to the force a single refresher once the new laws were enacted, so that it could also cover things like the change with ammunition.”

This refers to the new legislation's repeal of the law that prohibits possession of ammo in D.C. without a registered gun in the same gauge or caliber.

Hopefully by the end of the summer, any gun owner - resident or nonresident visiting the nation’s capital - will have easily accessible and correct information on transport laws. There should be less fear of false arrest.

2) The written test required for gun ownership is filled with obscure, irrelevant questions.

Mendelson letter to MPD: “Witnesses testified before the Committee that the written test for new firearm registrants includes information that is outdated, unnecessary or superfluous. The Committee report urges that MPD revise the test to relate more specifically to matters related to registration requirements, safe storage and transport.”

Result: A spokesman for MPD told me that the test is being updated in three stages. The first was already done, with a “quick fix to the transport question.”

The second revised test will be released after Mayor Vincent Gray signs the bill. Spokesmen for the mayor have not responded to my repeated requests for information on why the legislation has not been signed in the three weeks since the city council unanimously passed it.

Whenever Mayor Gray gets around to putting pen to paper, the new gun test will no longer have questions related to the now-eliminated vision test and ammunition laws. Finally, when the mandatory five-hour gun class is eliminated on July 1 and replaced by a video, the police test will “be more of a balance between key safety and legal principles.”

The end result of this is that residents will no longer be at risk of not being able to exercise their Second Amendment rights because they don't know if a gun is considered antique if it was made in 1898. That information isn’t even in the D.C.- provided study guide.

3) The registration packet fails to give the name and contact number for the city’s only legal gun dealer, Charles Sykes. Nor does the District explain the process of going through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) to buy a gun in a city that has no gun stores.

Furthermore, the police don’t provide prospective gun owners with the full cost of registration by failing to include Mr. Sykes’s $125 transfer fee.

Mendelson letter to MPD: “Concerns have been expressed that the registration packet does not include a thorough list of costs involved in registration, including the cost of transferring a firearm through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). Additionally, as the onset of registration, applicants should be provided with information regarding the FFL process, including the necessary contact information.”

Result: This has not yet been done by the police. A spokesman for Chief Lanier said her office was “under the impression” that this information was being given out by the registry section, but Mr. Sykes’s name, phone number and address (conveniently located in the same government building as the police station) are still not provided to potential gun owners in either the registry packet or online.

As for giving residents the full perspective of the fees associated with gun ownership, which for me came to $465, the police would not, at first, abide by council request. The difference between the $60 in fees disclosed by the city and the actual cost of registering a gun should be disclosed because it could make it prohibitively expensive for most residents, especially those with low incomes who need self-defense the most.

A spokesman explained the decision: “I don’t think that the government should be providing the actual FFL charges as that is something set by the private sector which can change at any time with no notice to the government necessary. For instance if shipping or gas prices rise, an FFL might pass on the higher costs to the consumer.

"Moreover, I believe our lone FFL has different charges for different levels of service. Instead we’ll include a statement that the FFL will charge a fee for their services and that potential registrants should contact the FFL for more information.”

I called Mr. Sykes. He said the single fee has not changed since the gun ban was lifted in 2008, and that he “does not anticipate doing so.” He also pointed out that, “I don't charge anything for shipping, that’s between the gun purchaser and the seller. And even when I drive to the few nearby dealers to pick up the gun, I don't charge anything extra.”

(For those who think Mr. Sykes’s fee is too high, it's important to note that there are only about 250 new guns transferred into the city each year (of the approximately 500 registered), so he's only making enough to do this job part time. I believe he’s doing a service because if he goes out of business, then under the new law, the mayor will act as an FFL, which cannot bode well for gun ownership.)

After arguing the transfer fees point with the police department spokesman, the decision was reversed and the registration packets will now be updated to include the transfer costs.

Also the spokesman said that the department will be “including notice that training can cost more than $200, and residents may wish to wait until July when a new video will available for free.” Thus, if a resident is able to wait two months to register a gun, the final cost will go down to $185.

This is a huge step forward for gun rights in the nation's capital. Thanks to a bit of pressure, Washington has become more cooperative and transparent about its restrictive firearms laws.

While the new laws will make it significantly easier to register a gun, the process is still too difficult compared to the rest of the country.

So the fight won't be over until the pointless registration process is eliminated. The Second Amendment is my registration certificate.

Uploaded: 5/9/2012