Inside a Gun Hearing in Washington, D.C.


By Ladd Everitt

Yesterday, I attended a public hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary regarding a new piece of gun-related legislation, Bill 19-614, the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” The hearing provided a perfect snapshot of the way gun politics operate in the District, with the usual cast of characters in lead roles on the pro-gun side.

Everyone is familiar with the District of Columbia’s tough gun laws, but the “Firearms Amendment Act” would actually address many of the criticisms of pro-gun activists and eliminate some existing regulations. Specifically, Bill 19-614 would:

-- Allow D.C. residents to take their guns to firearms safety and training courses before they have officially registered them with the city.
-- Eliminate the vision testing requirement to register a firearm. Those who are legally blind would still be prohibited from registering firearms.
-- Accept military training, or the possession of a state firearms license for which comparable training was required, to satisfy the District’s mandatory training requirement to register a firearm.
-- Repeal the requirement that registered handguns undergo ballistics identification testing.
-- Require the Metropolitan Police to take photographs for use in the registration application process, rather than requiring applicants to supply their own photographs.

All of these changes were initiated by Judiciary Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who sought to accommodate pro-gun activists in the District after meeting with them personally to hear their concerns. You never would have known that sitting through yesterday’s hearing, however. Pro-gun activists spent the morning and afternoon browbeating Mendelson and issuing additional demands in a manner that was frequently impolite and sometimes downright rude.

First up to testify was Emily "I'm meh on voting rights" Miller, the Senior Editor of the Washington Times Opinion pages (which embrace even the most bizarre conspiracy theories perpetuated by the NRA) . Miller has become something of a cause célèbre in the pro-gun movement because of her “Emily Gets Her Gun” blog at the Times website. The blog basically gives Miller a platform to complain about D.C. gun laws ad nauseam. But there are fun features for people who really like weapons, too, like gun porn photos and a poll that allows them to vote on which semiautomatic handgun Emily should buy to take down “bad guys” with.

Miller spent about 20 minutes at the hearing complaining about the process needed to satisfy the training requirement for registering handguns in the District, which is strange, because she successfully completed that training more than two months ago, and Bill 19-614 would make it even easier for future applicants to do so. Nonetheless she made it clear to Chairman Mendelson that the list of 46 certified firearms instructors supplied by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) was grossly insufficient. Why? Because she did not want to travel to the home/office of one of these “armed strange men” and put herself at personal risk to undergo the training. [Miller was presumably referring to pro-gun activist Ricardo Royal, one of the 46 who was on hand to testify.] 

Let me get this straight… Miller is scared to spend a few hours with a firearms instructor that’s been certified by the MPDC (i.e., multiple, thorough background checks), but thinks she’ll be safer if the “strange men” of Washington, D.C. can arm themselves under far less stringent oversight? At the hearing, Miller praised Virginia laws that allow someone to walk out of a store with a handgun in just 10 minutes, no training required. “It’s much easier to shoot a gun than drive a car,” she told Mendelson. “Anyone can do it.” Except perhaps Miller. She inadvertently revealed that she has sometimes violated the basic rules of firearms safety that were taught to her by instructors (e.g., by placing her finger on the trigger of a gun before she was prepared to fire it).

Miller also showed little grasp of facts, boasting at one point that “gun ownership is at its highest [level] in 30 years.” In reality, data from the General Social Survey tells us exactly the opposite—that only one in five Americans now owns a firearm.

Finally, Miller apparently associates with criminals. “Anecdotally, a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I have a gun, I don’t register it,’” she told Mendelson. So much for that “law-abiding citizens” thing the NRA likes to shout about.

Back to the topic of “strange men,” the next pro-gun activist to testify, James Collier, told Mendelson that he wanted the city to legalize the civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle (the semiautomatic-fire-only AR-15) so he could shoot feral pigs in the swamps of South Carolina with it. No, I didn’t make that up.

George Lyon, the President of the D.C. Chapter of the Community Association for Firearms Education (CAFE), said he needed to carry a loaded handgun while walking his dog at 1:00AM. The dog wasn’t on hand to offer his own view about the wisdom of such behavior.

NRA Lifetime Member/Plaintiff Absalom Jordan compared D.C.’s elected officials to Virginians who sought to keep schools segregated from the 1950s-70s. He also falsely accused Mendelson of offering Bill 19-614 only because of the threat of gun lobby litigation—which was later rebutted by pro-gun witnesses.

But the strangest man of all is Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in the Cato Institute lawsuit that overturned D.C.’s handgun ban in 2008 (the five Supreme Court Justices who wrote the D.C. v. Heller opinion are the same five who decided corporations have a right to free speech in Citizens United). Heller’s testimony took the form of a bizarre presentation on “Firearms Development” in which he showed Mendelson multiple home-printed photos of guns. During this presentation, Heller claimed that the AR-15 assault rifle is “the most safest rifle…to use” and proudly told a story about how his friend in West Virginia bought his five-year-old daughter a pink AR-15. Heller also expressed support for allowing D.C. residents to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public with no screening or training, including on college campuses.

Heller didn’t want to talk much about his current lawsuit against the District of Columbia, which has gone nowhere. As Daniel Vice, the Senior Attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, noted at the hearing, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld D.C.’s licensing/registration laws and its assault weapons ban in Heller II, writing, “none of the District’s registration requirements prevents an individual from possessing a firearm in his home or elsewhere.”

For more information on Dick Heller, visit the Heller Foundationwebsite, where Heller supports voter suppression backed up by the threat of political violence, claims the American Nazi Party is supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, and quotes virulent racist/insurrectionist Jeff Cooper. To put it simply, the fact that longstanding, democratically-enacted gun laws in the District were overturned on this man’s behalf is nothing short of shameful.

Not a single pro-gun witness thanked Chairman Mendelson for sitting down with them, listening to their concerns, and offering the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” They were there only to harangue him and make additional demands.

Like Mendelson, MPDC Police Chief Cathy Lanier stood in stark contrast to the pro-gunners with her willingness to listen, reach compromise, and accommodate. In her testimony at the hearing, Chief Lanier defended the city’s licensing-registration process, laying out four ways that it helps preserve public safety: 1) It allows law enforcement to verify the eligibility of firearm owners; 2) It ensures that firearm owners have a body of knowledge about D.C. gun laws and firearms safety; 3) It allows police to quickly distinguish between legal and illegal firearms in the field; 4) It helps track firearms that have been lost, stolen or used in a crime.

But Lanier also suggested several ways that the process can be made more convenient for gun owners. She said the department believes it can use information technology to eliminate subsequent visits to MPDC for background checks when registrants renew their licenses. She also was open to revisiting training requirements, suggesting that classes can be shorter and conducted at MPDC facilities. Finally, the MPDC is now providing office space for Federal Firearms Licensee Charles Sykes, so registrants no longer have to make multiple trips between his office and MPDC headquarters.

But the bottom line is that since January 2009, only 2,115 total firearms have been registered in the District of Columbia. Mendelson had it exactly right when he said at the hearing, “People in the district, it’s an urban environment, there isn’t a lot of hunting in the city … Within the culture of the city, [there is] not as much of a desire to have guns as was thought or speculated.”

We should salute Mendelson and other D.C. Council members for being willing to listen to all D.C. residents and consider all points of view, no matter how extreme. That’s democracy at work. At the same time, we should be aware that pro-gun activists do not appreciate such gestures and will not stop until they have imposed their far-right-wing political values on our city and eradicated our gun laws entirely—even if/when this involves voiding the democratic decisions of D.C. residents. Monday simply provided additional evidence of that unfortunate fact.

[To watch a full video of the hearing, click here. Dick Heller’s testimony starts at the 3:29:40 mark and is worth watching.]

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