Only 'Revolvers and Derringers' Allowed in D.C.?


Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty claims "semiautomatic handguns generally remain illegal" in D.C. despite yesterday's Supreme Court decision overturning the city's handgun ban and "safe storage" requirements. The Violence Policy Center likewise argues that "the Court's ruling for the most part will only affect revolvers and derringers." It notes that D.C. bans "machine guns," which it idiosyncratically defines to include not only guns that fire "more than 1 shot by a single function of the trigger" but also guns that fire just once per trigger pull and can fire "more than 12 shots without manual reloading." Even if Fenty is correct that the latter provision remains intact, there are plenty of semiautomatic handguns with ammunition capacities of 12 or fewer rounds. These, for example, or these.

A "news analysis" in today's New York Times also sows confusion about the legal status of semiautomatic guns, saying "six states, Puerto Rico and at least 14 municipalities ban assault weapons and semiautomatic weapons." A ban on "semiautomatic weapons" would permit possession only of revolvers and single-shot pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Neither Puerto Rico nor any state has such a law. Puerto Rico bans "semi-automatic long-barrelled weapon[s]," and according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence seven states ban "assault weapons," an arbitrarily defined category of firearms invented by gun control activists and distinguished mainly by a scary, militaristic appearance. 

As its source for the erroneous statement about gun bans, the Times cites Justice Stephen Breyer's dissenting opinion in D.C. v. Heller, where he says "at least six States and Puerto Rico impose general bans on certain types of weapons, in particular assault weapons or semiautomatic weapons," and "at least 14 municipalities do the same." This is a much vaguer statement than what the Times reported. It would encompass bans on handguns, inexpensive handguns ("Saturday night specials"), and machine guns as well as so-called assault weapons. The states cited by Breyer—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York—have "assault weapon" bans, not blanket bans on semiautomatic guns. I don't know whether any of those 14 municipalities has a complete ban on semiautomatic firearms, but it's certainly not true that all of them do, as the Times reported. Breyer's list includes several cities that ban handguns but allow possession of semiautomatic long guns.

Right after inaccurately paraphrasing Breyer, the Times adds: "But Justice [Antonin] Scalia wrote [in the majority opinion] that the Second Amendment's protections apply only to weapons in common use, like rifles and pistols." The but makes no sense, because the weapons banned by the laws Breyer cited are "rifles and pistols." When it comes to figuring out which guns are "unusual and dangerous weapons" of the sort Scalia says may be prohibited without violating the Second Amendment, I hope the courts do a better job of drawing meaningful distinctions.