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.
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. 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.
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 to end.
Clarence Lusane is a professor of comparative and regional studies program at the School of International Service at American University.