Second Amendment advocates scored a significant legal victory today when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit blocked Washington, D.C., from enforcing a law that effectively bars most D.C. residents from lawfully carrying handguns in public. "The Second Amendment," the court declared, "erects some absolute barriers that no gun law may breach."
The case was Wrenn v. District of Columbia (consolidated with Grace v. District of Columbia). At issue was a District of Columbia regulation that limited conceal-carry licenses only to those individuals who can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the chief of police, that they have a "good reason" to carry a handgun in public. According to the District, applicants for a conceal-carry license must show a "special need for self-protection distinguishable from the general community as supported by evidence of specific threats or previous attacks that demonstrate a special danger to the applicant's life." Living or working "in a high crime area shall not by itself establish a good reason."
The D.C. Circuit weighed those regulations against the text and history of the Second Amendment and found the regulations to be constitutionally deficient. "At the Second Amendment's core lies the right of responsible citizens to carry firearms for personal self-defense beyond the home, subject to longstanding restrictions," the D.C. Circuit held. "These traditional limits include, for instance, licensing requirements, but not bans on carrying in urban areas like D.C. or bans on carrying absent a special need for self-defense." The court added: "The Amendment's core at a minimum shields the typically situated citizen's ability to carry common arms generally. The District's good-reason law is necessarily a total ban on exercises of that constitutional right for most D.C. residents. That's enough to sink this law under" District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case that struck down D.C.'s total ban on handguns.
Today's decision by the D.C. Circuit widens an already gaping split among the federal courts on this issue. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, "the Second Amendment does not protect in any degree the right to carry concealed firearms in public." By contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit says that "one doesn't need to be a historian to realize that a right to keep and bear arms in the eighteenth century could not rationally have been limited to the home."
In Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule definitively on the scope of the Second Amendment outside the home. In the nine years since that landmark ruling was issued, the Court has declined several ripe opportunities to settle the matter once and for all.
In fact, just last month, the Court refused to review the 9th Circuit's dismissal of the right to carry, prompting Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, to lambast the Court for its "distressing trend" of refusing to hear any such cases and thereby treating "the Second Amendment as a disfavored right." As Thomas put it, "even if other Members of the Court do not agree that the Second Amendment likely protects a right to public carry, the time has come for the Court to answer this important question definitively."
That definitive answer apparently won't be coming anytime soon. For now, Second Amendment advocates will have to take heart in victories such as today's win at the D.C. Circuit.