The horrible irony of the Navy Yard shootings is that they took place in a city that has led the nation in gun control legislation.
For more than three decades, beginning in 1976, Washington, D.C, had the strictest gun laws in the country. Basically, unless you were a law enforcement officer, it was impossible to get a permit to own — let alone carry — a gun.
But the city could not exist as an island of rational gun control in a sea of virtually unlimited gun access. Its southern neighbor, Virginia, has few obstacles to purchasing guns either at a gun shop, where a background check takes about three minutes, or from an individual, in which case no background check is required.
Rather than support the preference of the local community for gun restrictions, conservatives in Congress and the NRA tried to get rid of the law. Because unlike any other jurisdiction in the nation, the District of Columbia’s laws must be approved by Congress and the White House. Although a number of bills to end D.C.’s gun limitations were passed in the House of Representatives by a Republican majority, none ever became law.
Then along came Dick Heller, a security guard at the Federal Judicial Center. In 2003, Heller filed a lawsuit against the city to be allowed to register his gun, a task that was illegal in D.C. at the time. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, and on June 26, 2008, the conservative bloc ruled in a 5-4 decision that Heller and other individuals, as opposed to just state militias, had the right to “keep and bear” arms at home.
D.C. city leaders set out to construct the most restrictive gun law allowable in the context of the ruling by the court. It requires mandatory training in gun safety, a background check, fingerprinting, a written test, a ballistics testing, a10-day waiting period, and a prohibition against concealed and open gun carrying. Initially, D.C.’s liberated gun owners were restricted from owning semi-automatics, but the city caved on that issue.
While it is likely that the city still has the most restrictive gun law in the nation, the bottom line is that individuals can now legally arm themselves.
Whether the Navy Yard shooter obtained his guns legally or not, a discussion about the role of gun violence in the United States will likely once again grip our popular politics. And, once again, the gun lobby will just as likely sweep away any common-sense approach to gun ownership while calling for more guns.
President Obama’s campaign for even modest and popular gun law reform following the Sandy Hook massacre produced little more than shows of empathy as the NRA flexed its lobby muscle and members of Congress from both parties bowed and hid.
After the slaughters of college students, elementary children, theater goers, military members and even the debilitating shooting of one of its own, it is clear that Congress as it is currently occupied will not muster the courage to pass legislation that protects the nation because it refuses to challenge gun manufacturers and their lobbies.
This has got to end.
Clarence Lusane is professor of Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies Program at the School of International Service at American University. He also is a member of the District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs.