WASHINGTON—The constitutional right to have a firearm for self-defense in one’s home or business was settled in 2008 when the Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on the possession of firearms. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the high court’s 5/4 decision made the ban of possession of firearms in the District, and by extension, anywhere in the country, unconstitutional.
Two years later, the right to possess a firearm for self-defense in one’s home was extended to the states in McDonald v. Chicago.
However, Heller did not decide another District restriction on firearms—the right to carry a concealed weapon or an open weapon on the streets and public places.
Since Heller, over 30,000 gun owners in the District have registered their handguns, according to the Washington Times. At least some of these gun owners would like to have their firearms with them outside the home for self-protection.
In July, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that D.C.’s ban on carrying weapons outside the home violated the Second Amendment. Whether this decision will be appealed has not been decided, but for the moment, a District resident can legally carry a firearm if it is properly registered, and the same is true of non-residents under certain conditions.
Is permitting citizens to carry a gun outside the home a good idea?
On Oct. 9 at the National Press Club, advocates on both sides of the issue debated this question. Secondarily, it was discussed whether openly carrying firearms is a good idea in the nation’s capital in particular.
In Favor of Gun-Carry
George Lyon, one of the litigants in the Heller suit, said that people like him, who are responsible gun owners, should be permitted to carry a firearm outside the home. He has had more than 600 hours of training and has concealed-carry permits in three states. He carries his gun in the District to the bank, grocery store, and park.
Lyon said that an individual confronted on the street with the possibility of a mugging, rape, or murder would naturally want protection from harm. While he agrees that flight is the best strategy, sometimes one can’t leave the scene because of a spouse or child. As for calling 9-1-1, help will come too late.
“Citizen-carry is at best only about equalizing the odds,” said Lyon, who added he was trying to be responsible for his personal safety.
Eleven million gun owners have permits to carry handguns for personal protection, Lyon said. In Texas, a permit holder is 14 times less likely to commit a crime than a non-permit holder, he said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier backs Lyon on the wholesome nature of the class of people who have permits to carry firearms in the District.
“Law-abiding citizens that register firearms, that follow the rules, are not our worry,” she said, according to the Washington Post.
A nationwide survey of police showed overall support for Lyon’s position. The study was conducted by PoliceOne in March 2013, and included the input of over 15,000 current or former/retired law enforcement. The study found, “91 percent support the concealed carry of firearms by civilians who have not been convicted of a felony and/or have not been deemed psychologically incapable.”
Probably Lyon’s strongest point was a study that found that 81 percent of homicide defendants had at least one arrest, and 66 percent had multiple arrests. But anyone who wants to register a gun must undergo a background check. That’s a requirement in all states. Thus, the bad guys are highly unlikely to get a legal permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Conceal-Carry: Policy Issue
Paul Helmke, former president and CEO of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the right to possess a firearm is not unlimited and can be restricted. Concealed-carry is a policy choice communities need to make, but it is not a constitutional issue, he said.
Helmke referred to section 3 in Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller, “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Helmke concluded that any concealed-carry restrictions are policy issues to be settled legislatively, not through the courts.
Helmke, who has been elected mayor of Fort Wayne three times, said that conditions in the District of Columbia, as the seat of national government, may require a different policy to restrict carrying handguns.
“If we allow people to carry guns, either concealed or openly in the District, I do think we put a lot of government officials, [ambassadors, and operations] at risk.” He reminded the audience that in March 1981, a handgun was used on President Ronald Reagan in the District.
Helmke was supported by D.C. Police Chief Lanier’s statement after the district court in July ruled against the District on banning the carrying of firearms: “My one focus really now is going to be security of our dignitaries in those really highly sensitive large events.”
Doubts on Concealed Weapons Value
Helmke was skeptical that allowing citizens to carry guns concealed or in the open would be a net positive.
Helmke pointed out that although having a gun in one’s home brings with it the risk that it will be turned on oneself or family members (this is 21 times more likely than it being used on an intruder), at least the risk is your own. When taking a gun outside the home, you put others at risk, he said.
Since 2007, 600 people in this country have been killed by concealed-carry permit holders. Fourteen law enforcement officers were killed by concealed-carry permit holders, he said.
Currently, in 25 percent of robberies and 5 percent of assaults, a gun is involved, he said. Helmke argued that with more people carrying concealed weapons, the criminals will respond, and use guns more. An escalation is likely, making us less safe, he said.
Helmke did not oppose law-abiding, well-trained persons like Lyon carrying a firearm, but he said “people can get a gun without any training.”
*Image of a handgun via Shutterstock