Civil Liberties

In Clever Effort To Generate New Criminals, D.C. Demands Registered Gun Owners Re-Register Again and Again


Model 1911
Sam Lisker

Officials in the nation's capital seem to believe that not enough gun-owning city residents have told them to get stuffed; they want already registered gun owners to register again, and again, every couple of years. It's an effort guaranteed to turn some of the compliant into instant criminals, and to guarantee that nobody will ever have a handle on just who is armed.

The new rule hasn't yet been added to the online repository of D.C. Municipal Regulations, but you can read it in its proposed form along with a handy summary. The key passage says:

2326.1 Pursuant to § 207a of the Act, a registration certificate shall expire three (3) years after the date of issuance, unless renewed in accordance with the Act and this section or otherwise stated in law or regulation.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, "30,000 firearm registrations would be subject to the renewal requirement," with each registrant subject to a three-month grace period during each re-registration period. "A registrant would be required to appear in person at MPD headquarters; submit fingerprints; confirm possession of the previously-registered firearm, home address, and continued compliance with the Act's registration requirements."

The Cato Institute's Ilya Shapiro comments, "Of the 50,000 or however many people there are, at least one person won't comply. Not willfully but because they haven't heard about the new law and all of a sudden they'll be in technical violation of the law which has serious penalties."

Another problem is that renewed registration turns the process into more of a revokable permitting scheme than actual registration. In the wake of Heller, D.C. probably can't get away with arbitrarily capping or reducing the number of legal guns it will allow, as New York City has, repeatedly (with the result that those with political connections or cash to spare are favored). But it can make the process such a hassle that people don't bother complying—which is already par for the course with less-restrictive laws.

It's hard to think of a justification for the law, other than outright harassment. Either gun owners register when they enter the District, or they don't (and reducing the hassle factor would encourage at least some degree of compliance). And why should D.C. officials care if owners move on and are no longer residents? Few jurisdictions make much effort to track gun owners leaving their turf.

Years ago, just for the hell of it, I tried to follow the New York City Police Department's procedure for giving up a registration on my one legal gun when I happily left that dump swell town in the rearview mirror. The officer on the phone was so flummoxed by the idea that I'd moved somewhere that required neither licensing nor registration that I finally told her to fuck herself and hung up (despite my mild-mannered demeanor in print, I have a short temper with officialdom). If Bloomberg's minions can make their peace with aging registration records, D.C. could possibly manage, too.

Then again, D.C.'s new registration law may be a misfired attempt to really nail down how prevalent gun ownership really is. There's something of a mantra making the rounds in gun-hating circles that firearms ownership is on the decline and so the whole "problem" will eventually go away as it fades from the culture.

Gun ownership

But that claim is based on self-reporting, as pollsters call people to ask them if they own politically controversial items that many politicians want to severely restrict or outlaw. The percentage of self-reported gun ownership has blipped up and down over the years, but generally settled from 50 percent to 37 percent from 1960 to now.

That number has settled even as support for gun restrictions has dropped in Reason-Rupe polling, AP polling, and Gallup polling. Those self-reported numbers have settled even as market observers expect 2013 to end as a record year for gun sales, adding to the estimated 270,000,000 or so guns already in American hands. Those numbers have settled even though firearms are incredibly durable, and guns sold decades ago are likely to be remain serviceable, even as they gain new neighbors on the wall or in the gun safe from those record sales (I own a Marlin lever-action rifle manufactured in 1900 that still shoots perfectly). Or maybe those neighboring guns are quite a distance away, since many recent gun buyers have been first-timers.

I've written before about the long and consistent history of abject failure enjoyed by gun registration laws. Attempts to get Americans, Canadians, French, Germans, and everybody else to register their boomsticks with government officials always result in more defiance than compliance—probably because governments repeatedly misuse the information. Chances are that the widely accepted "decline" in gun ownership reflects a similar unwillingness to surrender sensitive information about a highly politicized issue.

By making the hurdle to compliance with its gun regulations higher and more annoying, and threatening even technical violators with fines and criminal charges, Washington, D.C. officials guarantee that the gap will only widen between what they think they think they know and reality.