The District of Columbia can bar residents from owning assault weapons and require them to register their handguns without violating the Second Amendment, but the district must explain further why its numerous handgun registration requirements are necessary, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals did not strike down any of the district's gun laws, which were approved after a landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision that ended a 32-year-old handgun ban in the nation's capital.
The court held that the district's ban on assault weapons and magazines containing more than 10 rounds of ammunition were constitutional. It also held that requiring registration of handguns is a deeply rooted practice that does not violate the Second Amendment.
"The basic requirement to register a handgun is longstanding in American law, accepted for a century in diverse states and cities and now applicable to more than one fourth of the nation by population," the judges wrote.
However, the court said the district must show "an important or substantial government interest" in maintaining what the court deemed the district's "novel" registration requirements.
Those include: banning residents from registering more than one firearm per month; requiring gun owners to undergo vision tests, fingerprinting and background checks; and requiring registration of shotguns and rifles.
The court sent those requirements back to a lower court to give the parties a chance to argue the constitutional issues they raise.
Dick Heller, a security guard, filed the lawsuit that ended up in the Supreme Court after the district rejected his application to keep a handgun at his Capitol Hill home. After the court ruled in his favor, Heller challenged the new restrictions on gun ownership approved by the D.C. Council. He and three other district residents claimed the new registration process was too burdensome.
The plaintiffs were pleased that the judges seemed skeptical of the registration requirements, said their attorney, Stephen P. Halbrook.
"We're obviously pleased with the court agreeing with us tentatively on some of the registration requirements," he said, predicting that the district would have "a very hard time" persuading a judge that the requirements are necessary.
Halbrook said he had not yet decided whether to petition the entire appeals court to review the case or to move forward with the fight over the registration requirements at the district court level.
In a statement, Mayor Vincent Gray praised the ruling. He said it upheld "common-sense gun regulations" that are important components of the district's efforts to curb violent crime. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said in a separate statement that his office was prepared to argue that the registration requirements serve an important function.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence also hailed the decision, noting that the judges relied on Brady Center evidence on the dangers of assault weapons.
"The same court that originally struck down the D.C. handgun law has now affirmed that strong gun laws are entirely consistent with the Second Amendment," Brady Center acting president Dennis Henigan said in a statement.
The majority opinion was written by Judges Douglas H. Ginsburg and Karen LeCraft Henderson. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that both the assault weapon ban and the registration requirements were unconstitutional.