A federal judge on Saturday overturned Washington D.C.'s ban on carrying handguns outside the home, saying it was unconstitutional. The ruling could pave the way for new laws that would make handguns available to residents of a city that two decades ago had the nation’s highest murder rate.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin represents the latest battle in a long fight over gun laws in Washington, once known for having some of the strictest controls on firearms laws in the country.
A city official said Sunday officials would ask for a stay and were weighing an appeal. The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by the Washington state-based Second Amendment Foundation and three District of Columbia residents and a New Hampshire resident who said they wanted to carry guns for protection.
"There is no longer any basis on which this Court can conclude that the District of Columbia's total ban on the public carrying of ready-to-use handguns outside the home is constitutional under any level of scrutiny," Judge Scullin said in an opinion.
"Therefore, the Court finds that the District of Columbia's complete ban on the carrying of handguns in public is unconstitutional," he added in his 19-page ruling in the Palmer et al v. District of Columbia et al case, which has been dragging on for five years.
Ted Gest, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, which defended the city's ban, said the city was "studying the opinion and won't comment on its substance."
The court ordered the city to allow residents to carry handguns outside their homes and to let non-residents carry them as well.
Alan Gura, the lawyer who represents the group challenging the ban and who won the 2008 and 2010 Supreme Court cases, said Sunday he was very pleased.
Opponents of gun control have used the District as a petri dish for challenges to bans on the weapons — with success. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision striking down the city's 32-year-old ban on handguns. Since then, the city has rewritten its laws, lawsuits have been filed and even Congress has waded into the fight.
The city had to rewrite its rules after the 2008 Supreme Court decision. Residents were required to register their guns and keep them in their homes. Gun owners also have to take a safety class, be photographed and fingerprinted and re-register their weapons every three years. Those requirements were challenged in court but upheld by a federal judge in May.
Crime rates have fallen significantly since the scourges of crack cocaine and gun violence besieged the city in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994, the city saw 399 homicides. In 2013, that number had fallen to 104, according to Metropolitan Police Department statistics.
But efforts are still made to curb gun-control laws. Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, successfully added an amendment to a bill that would block the District from spending any money to enforce local gun laws. Massie has conceded his amendment is unlikely to get through the Senate and become law.
City officials, including D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can speak before Congress but cannot vote, charge that Congress abuses its role as overseer of city affairs.
Only in 1973 did Washingtonians win from Congress the right to vote for president and elect their own mayor, but still today the 600,000 citizens of the city itself do not have a voting representative of their own in Congress, a result of a provision in the Constitution intended to limit the political power of people living in the capital.
Although Washingtonians can elect members of their city council, which can write its own laws, the city’s budget must receive final approval from Congress’s D.C. Committee, in the Senate and the House of Representatives. With the exception of non-voting Delegate Norton, the House committee is comprised of representatives from everywhere but D.C.
Al Jazeera and wires. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report.