District of Columbia Gun Laws: On Being Made to Feel Like a Criminal

I recently visited Washington DC to examine the portrayal of guns in our national museums. On the way back to the national mall from lunch at Spike Mendelsohn’s We the Pizza, my friend Sandy and I passed by the Library of Congress. I was moved to stop by the memory of the beautiful reading room there and the hope that I could draw some writerly inspiration from seeing it again.

Photo by Carol Highsmith, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007687187/
Photo by Carol Highsmith, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007687187/

As Sandy and I were heading up the steps to the main entrance to the Thomas Jefferson Building, I realized that U.S. Capitol Police were set up at the entrance with an x-ray machine and metal detector. I felt uneasy and paused, closing my eyes to help me think, then headed back down the stairs onto the terrace. Standing off to the side and with a clear view of the U.S. Capitol building across the street, I was like a one man security agent, unpacking my backpack, checking every pocket, and shaking it. Because I was walking a lot around the city, I carried my Deuter hiking backpack, which is small but has an amazing number of pockets. I kept thinking how easy it would be for something to fall to the bottom of one of the pockets and evade my search. Fairly confident that the backpack was safe, I proceeded to pat myself down, repeatedly checking my shirt pocket and the front and back pockets of my pants. Sandy did the same, her purse being even more challenging to clear than my backpack given the amazing number of things she is able to cram in there (think circus clowns in a VW).

Both convinced we could safely pass the screening, we headed into the building. I tried to remain nonchalant as I put my backpack on the conveyor belt and emptied my pockets into the blue plastic bowl. I gave myself another quick pat down and remembered the pen I kept in my shirt breast pocket. Thankfully it was a one of my resin barreled pens rather than a metal one I have. I set it in the bowl, turned toward the metal detector and hoped for the best. We both made it through safely and enjoyed one of the most beautiful buildings in DC, but getting there was more stressful than it needed to be.

Why? I am a law-abiding citizen with no interest in harming anyone. I had no weapons on me other than my own fists. (Joking! Although not entirely since more people were killed in 2010 and 2011 with “hands, fists, feet, etc.” than by rifles and shotguns combined, according to FBI crime data). What did I have to worry about?

What gave me pause before entering the Library of Congress was the possibility that I could have a stray round of ammunition in my bag or pocket, or even a spent casing – the empty metal bullet holder that has no primer or powder and is incapable of firing a bullet (which is not present either, by definition). Casings ejected from semi-automatic guns are known to end up in odd places (in people’s hats, down their shirts, in jacket pockets, or in bags/backpacks). People also pick up “brass” to be good range citizens and stewards of the environment. And sometimes spent casings are kept as souvenirs or even re-purposed into practical tools. The photo below shows some of my own souvenirs as well as the pen I was afraid I might be carrying into the Library of Congress, constructed from empty rifle cartridge casings.

20131104_081937_resizedAccording to laws passed in the District of Columbia after the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller overturned the city’s ban on handguns, it is illegal to possess ammunition in DC (except as legally stored for transportation according to federal law) without being a DC resident and having a registered firearm. The maximum penalty for possession of unregistered ammunition is the same as for possession of an unregistered firearm: a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

But surely no one would ever be arrested and prosecuted in DC simply for carrying a few rounds of ammunition! In fact, according to stories originally published by Emily Miller in the Washington Times, at least one person has been. Former Army Specialist Adam Meckler was going to the Veterans Affairs regional office in DC to turn in his medical records as part of the process of being discharged after 9 years of service that included tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had 14 loose rounds of 9mm handgun ammunition in his backpack. When these were detected on the magnetometer at the VA, Meckler was handcuffed and read his Miranda rights by federal police officers, then taken to DC police headquarters and jailed for several hours on charges of “unregistered ammunition.”

Photo from Washington Time’s website (http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/guns/2012/jul/1/miller-dc-arrests-vet-arrested-unregistered-ammuni/)

DC Attorney General Irvin Nathan refused to drop the charges, so without the financial resources for a legal defense, Meckler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “possession of unregistered ammunition.” He was sentenced to 30 days probation and a $100 fine, and was also required to make a $100 donation to the Victims of Violent Crimes fund and be added to DC’s gun offender registry.

Ordinarily I would not have thought twice about going through a security screening, but I had read Emily Miller’s book of investigative journalism, Emily Gets Her Gun, not long before going to DC. So the story of Specialist Meckler (which she recounts in Chapter 21) was fresh in my mind as I sweated my way through the metal detector at the Library of Congress. And even though I had no trouble clearing the screening, the very fact that I was close to giving myself a body cavity search outside the Jefferson Building gave me pause to reflect on DC’s gun laws. Perhaps if I was a well-connected media personality like NBC’s David Gregory, who knowingly possessed a banned 30-round rifle magazine in DC to score points on “Meet the Press,” I would not have to worry. (As Miller highlights in the same chapter as her story about Meckler, the very same Irvin Nathan extended a courtesy to Gregory in declining to press charges against Gregory that he did not afford to Meckler.) But I am more Meckler than Gregory, and as many folk sayings have it, “Laws, like the spider’s web, catch the fly and let the hawk go free.”

Photo courtesy of NBC/AP

Sensible laws should protect public safety without unduly burdening the liberty of the citizens. Is a law that makes possession of ammunition – including a spent bullet casing – such a law? I think not. A training script on firearms transportation laws issued by DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier to her officers in July 2012 highlights the case of an SUV driver who during a traffic stop is observed to have “a fired .45 ACP cartridge case in the cup holder.” Because the driver is a DC resident with a valid District of Columbia registration certificate for a pistol the driver is transporting legally, possessing the spent casing is lawful. However, “he is not transporting in accordance with the law. In order to comply with the law, the cartridge case should be stored so it is not accessible from the passenger compartment and the driver is, in fact violating the law and could be placed under arrest for this action.”

Not fully believing Miller’s seemingly incredible story, I was able to find a copy of the training document on-line to confirm that a driver could be arrested under DC law for a single spent casing in a cup holder. The document is fascinating in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. (See the DC gun law document.)

Even though the training document advises DC police officers that under “this particular set of circumstances, you should not make an arrest,” I am left to wonder whether part of the circumstances are that the driver had a valid DC gun registration certificate. What if a non-resident like myself had a spent casing in my drink holder? What would Chief Lanier advise then? The very fact that there is uncertainty surrounding this is telling. As Miller puts it bluntly, “This is hands-down the stupidest of all the District’s firearms laws. A brass candlestick can do more harm than an empty brass casing” (p. 266) — as anyone who has played the board game “Clue” knows!

Photo courtesy of http://lewebpedagogique.com

As surprised as I was to learn that DC had such a law, I was even more surprised to learn that similar laws exist in Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as Chicago and New York City. Indeed, an essay by John Zanini in the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Lawyers Journal in July 2011 on “the danger of spent shell casings” notes that an appeals court there “arrived at the conclusion that ammunition includes cartridges incapable of firing.”

The existence of laws such as this is clearly related to calls by many for “common sense” gun laws. Both liberal gun guy Dan Baum and liberal living with guns guy Craig Whitney conclude their books with calls for gun regulations that both gun rights and gun control proponents can live with. But the fact that two states and three cities ban “unregistered ammunition,” including spent casings, gives force to arguments about slippery slopes leading to unreasonable gun restrictions.

Before listing his preferred gun regulations, Whitney notes that “law-abiding individuals should be able to exercise [the right to keep and bear arms] without being made to feel as if they were criminals” (p. 212). I am a law-abiding individual who had not even thought about bringing a firearm to the District; yet DC’s gun laws managed to make me feel like a potential criminal nonetheless.


  1. […] I came to the book with some different questions and experiences the second time, though, and that made all the difference. Traveling to the District of Columbia from the south, the difference in the city’s gun laws compared to North Carolina and Virginia were striking. Being in the city it was easier to imagine both what it was like for Miller to get registered handgun in DC and what it would be like to inadvertently run afoul of those laws. (I wrote about this latter issue already.) […]


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