Liberty, Justice, and Handguns for All (in Washington): The D.C. Circuit Weighs In On Concealed Carry

Issue

Is the right to publicly carry a concealed weapon a “core” right protected by the Second Amendment? Gun rights activists throughout the District can celebrate, because the D.C. Circuit said yes. The court struck down the section of the D.C. Code that primarily limited concealed carry licenses to “those showing a good reason to fear injury to [their] person or property.”

The Evolution of Gun Laws in the District of Columbia

Over the last 40 years, the D.C. Council has attempted to establish gun restrictions on three separate occasions.

The first attempt – a complete ban on handgun possession – was struck down by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, Justice Scalia analyzed the meaning of the words “keep and bear arms,” and noted that “the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right.” Justice Scalia (quoting the D.C. Circuit in Parker v. District of Columbia) noted that “banning from the home the most preferred firearm in the nation to ‘keep’ and use for the protection of one’s home and family would fail constitutional muster.” Following Heller, most jurisdictions adopted the holding that the core right protected by the Second Amendment was the right for persons to keep firearms at home.

The Council’s second attempt – which allowed DC residents to possess handguns in their homes, but instituted a total ban on public carrying – was struck down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Palmer v. District of Columbia. In Palmer, the court held that a blanket ban on carrying handguns in public was unconstitutional, but some restrictions on carrying handguns in public could be permitted.

The third attempt maintained a ban on publicly carrying a handgun, except for persons who could demonstrate a “good reason” to carry. This “good reason” statute was struck down by the D.C. Circuit in Wrenn v. District of Columbia. In Wrenn, the court noted that the “good reason” statute was effectively the same as a “total ban” for most citizens.

To meet the requirements of the “good reason” statute, applicants for a concealed carry permit would need to “show a special need for self-protection distinguishable from the general community.” The court found the phrase “distinguishable from the general community” problematic. The language of the statute barred most people from obtaining a license to carry, because only a small portion of the D.C. metropolitan community could distinguish their needs “from the general community.” Before Wrenn, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department rejected 77 percent of concealed carry permit applications for failure to show a special need for self-protection.

Taking into consideration the textual and historical analysis in Heller, the court held

“…the individual right to carry common firearms beyond the home for self-defense—even in densely populated areas, even for those lacking special self-defense needs—falls within the core of the Second Amendment protections.”

With this language, the D.C. Circuit became the latest circuit to join the split over whether carrying beyond the walls of the home is a “core” right protected by the Second Amendment. This may result in greater scrutiny of the “good reason” statutes in other circuits.

The Split

The D.C. Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit in holding that a ban on public carrying violates the Second Amendment. In Moore v. Madigan, the Seventh Circuit struck down the Illinois Unlawful Use of Weapons statute. While somewhat distinct from a “good reason statute,” the statute was effectively a total ban on public carrying, with very narrow exceptions for law enforcement officers, hunters, and members of target shooting clubs (among others). The court held that “confrontation [requiring self-defense with a gun] is not limited to the home.”

The First, Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits disagree (for a comprehensive overview of the decisions below, check out another one of our Sunday Splits blogs).

  • In Hightower v. City of Boston, the First Circuit held that the government “may regulate the carrying of concealed weapons outside the home” and upheld Boston’s “good reason” statute.
  • In Kachalsky v. County of Westchester, the Second Circuit declined to extend the reasoning in Heller to carrying outside the home. The court upheld New York’s “good reason” statute, which required applicants seeking to obtain a concealed handgun permit, to “demonstrate a special need for protection.”
  • In Woollard v. Gallagher, the Fourth Circuit held that a “good-and-substantial-reason” requirement could withstand constitutional muster, and upheld Maryland’s “good reason” statute.
  • In Peruta v. County of San Diego, the Ninth Circuit explicitly stated that “there is no Second Amendment right for members of the public to carry concealed firearms in public.”

The D.C Circuit’s decision casts a sharp split on the issue of whether concealed carrying in public is a core right protected by the Second Amendment. The decision struck down the very kind of statute –a “good reason” statute – that has been consistently upheld in sister circuits.

Looking Forward – The Future of Concealed Carry

The D.C. Circuit’s order went into effect on October 7, and residents of Washington, D.C. who pass a background check and a firearms safety test will be permitted to carry a concealed handgun. Some restrictions on concealed carry remain, including prohibitions on carrying firearms into federal buildings or around monuments.

Following the D.C. Circuit’s decision, “good reason” statutes could be challenged in other circuits and present an opportunity for the Supreme Court to rule on this issue. In particular, the D.C. Circuit’s qualification that handguns can be carried “even in densely populated areas” could lead to the arguably strict “good reason” statues being challenged in major cities, such as New York and Boston.

The Supreme Court declined to review the decision in Woollard, and D.C. officials stated that they would not petition the Supreme Court to review the decision in Wrenn shortly before the D.C. Circuit’s order went into effect. But in light of current events, stark administrative changes, and the D.C. Circuit’s decision, the time may be ripe for the Supreme Court to revisit “good reason” statutes and explicitly state whether the core of the Second Amendment protects the right to publicly carry a concealed firearm.