As Americans celebrated Juneteenth last month, Washington, D.C. families mourned another pair of senseless deaths. An unlicensed free concert on June 19 called Moechella ended with a shooting that left three people wounded and a 15-year-old boy dead. A day later, a 16-year-old girl was killed in an accidental discharge in the southeastern part of the city. At that point there had been 96 homicides in the nation’s capital in 2022, eight of them juvenile victims. Then, on June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its monumental decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which struck down a New York state law giving local authorities blanket discretion on whether to issue concealed handgun permits to residents.
D.C. is not quite as restrictive as New York; it does have a “shall issue” provision meaning that if an applicant does not have any disqualifying issues the issuing authority may not deny the permit. The gun ownership climate there, however, is otherwise very inhospitable. Applications cost $222 and must be renewed every two years for $75—the most expensive outside New York City, and only 1.4 percent of adults hold permits. There are no self-defense provisions like “stand your ground,” and magazines are limited to 10 rounds while no long guns are permitted.
Running the Gauntlet
But D.C. Metro Police can still deny an application based on five suitability criteria. Those who are denied may appeal the decision to the D.C. Concealed Pistol Licensing Review Board (CPLRB) which adjudicates each appeal in bimonthly closed door meetings. There is even a provision within its legislative regulations that allows the CPLRB to dismiss an appeal without a hearing.
If it still sounds too fair, consider the makeup of the 11-member board:
- The U.S. attorney for D.C., or a mayor’s appointee in their place.
- The attorney general for D.C. or a designee from the AG’s office.
- A mental health professional with the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health chosen by the mayor.
- A former sworn officer of a law enforcement agency besides the Metro Police.
- Seven public members, including a mental health professional, two district residents with firearms experience, two district residents with experience in gun violence prevention, one district resident with victim advocacy experience, and one attorney who is a D.C. resident.
What happens when we match names to these positions?
Let’s start with Attorney General Karl Racine. In 2015, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling following up on Heller v. District of Columbia, the 2008 decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia holding that the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment belongs to the individual and not just formal members of “the militia.”
What is less known is that the decision remanded the case back to the D.C. Circuit, which held that four provisions of D.C.’s registration and licensing requirements were insufficiently tied to governmental interests. These were that 1) the applicant bring the weapon with them when registering “when so requested,” 2) that the applicant re-register his firearm every three years, 3) the passing of a test proving their knowledge of D.C. gun laws, and 4) a prohibition restricting the registration of more than one handgun per person every 30 days. To be clear this was for gun ownership, not for the actual right to carry concealed in public.
Racine agreed with the dissenting opinion of Judge Karen Henderson who held that the four restrictions ought to be preserved simply because of D.C.’s unique status as “a city full of high-level government officials, diplomats, monuments, parades, protests and demonstrations and, perhaps most pertinent, countless government buildings where citizens are almost universally prohibited from possessing firearms.” In other words the constitutional rights of all U.S. citizens are not extended to the residents of D.C. because they present a threat to the numerous officials and civil servants who work there and may commute home every day to neighboring states like Maryland and Virginia. Racine’s office is represented on the board by one of its attorneys, Alicia D. Washington, also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and a Maryland resident.
Next on the list is U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves. In 2014, he was one of the Justice Department attorneys to whom the GOP-controlled House referred the case of Lois Lerner for contempt of Congress. Graves and his colleagues opted not to charge Lerner. Recently his office has opted to file similar contempt of Congress charges against Trump Administration officials such as Steve Bannon and former advisor Peter Navarro.
The U.S. attorney’s office designee is Debra Long-Doyle, a retired prosecutor.
Other members of the panel are supposedly “community” members meant to represent the perspective of civilians that may require such a permit. Some of them appear to have fairly benign backgrounds such as a retired Capitol Police chief, two mental health professionals and retired Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon. There is also Dr. Edwin Powell, a former commissioner of the D.C. Human Rights Council. Others straddle a line where it is questionable whether they can truly be trusted to evaluate an appeal impartially. Here are a few:
- Denise Roper a security specialist with the IRS and DC metro government.
- Alfredo Phoenix a former Justice Department security official now working in the private sector.
- Anthony Musa, a foreign affairs officer with the State Department and former sanctions investigator with the U.S. Treasury.
- Danielle Reiff is a foreign service officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Reiff is also a supporter of the anti-gun activist group March for Our Lives, a group that holds one of its top policy positions to be “raising the standard for gun ownership” and support for gun buybacks which are explicitly meant to discourage civilians from owning guns.
- Sarah Ohlsen is manager of Child Safety Investigations at Meta, but months before her appointment had been working for the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants.
All of these are current or former federal security or law enforcement personnel so, along with the members drawn from the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. and the D.C. attorney general’s office, that makes six members active within either the municipal or federal governments on the board. Given that almost two-thirds of the D.C. workforce is involved in government work, this is not surprising. However, the vast majority of workers do not carry weapons as part of their job, and therefore what is unusual in this instance is that those holding the occupational privilege of being armed are involved somehow in constraining the rights of others to do so.
Heads I win, tails you lose.
The one person on the CPLRB with the least governmental experience is Sean Holihan, whose only qualification is as a resident with experience in “gun violence prevention.” He had once worked as a chief of staff to the state senate of Virginia, but is today state legislative director for the Giffords Law Center, one of the most powerful gun control advocacy groups in the United States. Like similar organizations, Giffords advocates stricter laws governing the sale, storage, and handling of firearms including assault weapons bans and limitations on concealed carry.
Holihan’s appointment to the D.C. board in 2021 coincided with his hiring as a paid lobbyist for the Giffords Law Center. Until then, Holihan had worked for various other lobbying and political consultancy firms, but none had been involved in firearm policy. This would suggest he was placed on the board based entirely on his policy stances, as opposed to any professional experience or community involvement.
It’s worth noting here that Giffords gives Maryland an “A-” grade in its scorecard and ranks it seventh out of 50 states in gun safety, even though the Old Line State ranks 33rd in the nation for firearm-related homicides. Using state-level statistics regarding gun violence is one of the ways they blur the picture of where the violence is occurring. Maryland has a gun death rate of 13.5 per 100,000, which isn’t too bad. Baltimore, on the other hand, has a gun death rate of 58.27 per 100,000, the second worst in the United States after St. Louis. Trends are only getting worse. Baltimore’s homicide rate in June was the worst in seven years.
Curiously, Washington, D.C. does not get a report card from Giffords, possibly because it has a gun death rate of 23.52 per 100,000, which would place it between Alaska and Alabama as the fifth worst state by that metric. In terms of homicides, 2021 was the worst year for D.C. in 18 years. Giffords also awarded Colorado the “most improved” status for its gun laws despite their rate increasing from 12.2 per 100,000 and 663 total deaths in 2014 to 15.4 per 100,000 and 922 total gun-related deaths in 2020, according to the CDC.
What about correlation between the number of legal permit holders and firearm deaths? In 2017 Florida topped the list for CCWs issued at 1.8 million, yet at 12.4 deaths per 100,000 it was only 28th in the country.
Washington, D.C. also had only 1.4 percent of its adult population legally holding permits, with the five states having less all being “may issue” jurisdictions where sheriffs or police chiefs until Bruen could simply decline to issue a permit without any noted justification.
Great victories in the courts count for little if we remain at the mercy of public officials who are savvy enough to skew the system in their favor. New York State has already passed a new law governing concealed carry in reaction to Bruen that would require applicants to submit a three-year record of their entire social media history as part of the approval proces—a standard that could be construed as discrimination based on First Amendment protected speech. Does one need any stronger sign that infringement on one civil liberty can and does cause similar abuses of others?