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D.C. Drafts New Gun Law

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And we're joined now by D.C. council member Phil Mendelson. He is chairman of the committee on public safety and the judiciary. And he's one of the principals involved in drafting new gun legislation in D.C.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. PHIL MENDELSON (Council Member, District of Columbia): Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, it seems that the challenge for you is creating new legislation that is strict yet still constitutional. Where do you draw the line?

Mr. MENDELSON: Well, the Supreme Court was pretty clear with regard to what the problem was with our law. They focused on two pieces: one that said you have to register weapon in the district, but you cannot register a hand gun - a very simple provision, which we can strike. The other had to do with the storage or safe storage of weapons in the home.

Our law has required, for over 30 years, that a person who has a registered firearm has to store it unloaded and either disassembled or with a trigger lock. The Supreme Court read that literally to mean that if one wanted to use a firearm for self-defense and took the trigger lock off, that they would, in that moment, be breaking the law. And they said that was unconstitutional. So we could fix that pretty easily by adding a self-defense exception.

NORRIS: But how do you define self-defense in that case? And if someone is using the gun for self-defense, how quickly can they get to their firearm if the trigger lock is in place, if it's stored in a secure cabinet or safe of some kind?

Mr. MENDELSON: Well, it's a little tricky but at the same time the court was focused on the fact that in the immediate moment of self-defense - they were reading our law literally to say there was no exception. So I think that if we provide an exception in the immediate moment of self-defense that then we would be meeting the Constitution while at the same time being clear that the storage of a weapon in the home has to be either locked or disassembled and unloaded.

NORRIS: Well, it seems like it's so sticky because this is not something that you can plan for. This is someone breaking in the back door and suddenly they're in your kitchen.

Mr. MENDELSON: Well, you can plan for it by - under the court's interpretation, you can plan for it by possessing the weapon. But anybody knowledgeable in firearms knows that you don't keep a loaded weapon lying around on the kitchen table at all times. That's not very safe handling of a firearm.

NORRIS: Do gun bans work? Because for years, when D.C. had this very strict gun ban, D.C. was known as the homicide capital of America?

Mr. MENDELSON: Well, you know, the advocates for the right to bear arms would say that gun bans don't work. I look at it differently. Firearms make violence more deadly. If we don't have any regulation, we will surely have more firearms. And with more firearms, we will see that firearms are used more frequently. I mean, that just is common sense. More guns means more gun violence.

NORRIS: I'm trying to get a hand on, Mr. Mendelson, on where you are in trying to draw the line in crafting this new legislation - if you are going to follow the directives, one that the court has given the district, or whether you're going to try to push back a little?

Mr. MENDELSON: I think that it's important that we comply with the Supreme Court. They were very clear with regard to two provisions in our law, which as I indicated at the outset, I think we can fix pretty easily. They then got vague when they said that firearms are - can be subject to reasonable regulation and reasonable - something that's going to be litigated across the country. I think it would be a mistake if we design whatever changes we make in a way to thwart the Supreme Court.

But, you know, urban areas are very different than the rest of the country, and that's where I'm coming from and I think the government, my colleagues are coming from, is ensuring public safety as opposed to - in the context of the Second Amendment debate - whether one is allowed to unfettered right to have a gun or not. And I'm not interested in looking at it from that context.

NORRIS: Mr. Mendelson, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. MENDELSON: Sure. Thank you.

NORRIS: Phil Mendelson is a D.C. council member. He's chairman of the committee on public safety and the judiciary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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