March 29, 2007

THE JIM WEBB / PHILLIP THOMPSON GUN ARREST STORY has had the salutary effect of bringing more attention to the District of Columbia’s silly gun laws. The Washington Post headlines its story this way: You Can Bring Gun to Capitol, But Not Through D.C. and observes:

The arrest this week of Phillip Thompson, an aide to Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) who carried a loaded pistol into a Senate office building, brought to light a contradiction between the regulations governing the Capitol grounds and the laws covering District streets.

The Capitol grounds are federal property and not subject to the District’s strict gun laws, which generally prohibit firearms.

Although some people are allowed to bring guns into the Capitol, they cannot legally get them there, said Lt. Jon Shelton, the longtime head of the D.C. police department’s gun unit.

“They can’t helicopter them in,” Shelton said.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer said he would advise lawmakers to “abide by D.C. laws” when not on Capitol grounds. He said members of Congress who want guns at the Capitol should ask police to transport the weapons for them.

Jeez. Though it seems to me that this may violate the right-to-travel provisions of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. I’m not an expert here, but I doubt that the D.C. police are, either.

Meanwhile, Timothy Noah, in Slate, parses Webb’s statements and observes:

To one of the reporters present, this sounded as though Webb were saying not only that he carried a gun with him when he was in Virginia, where it’s legal, but also that he carried a gun with him when he was in D.C., where it’s not. (D.C.’s handgun ban was recently struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals, but it remains in force while the city government seeks a review by the full D.C. Circuit.) The reporter therefore asked, “Do you, senator, feel that you are above Washington, D.C.’s gun law?” Webb replied: “I’m not going to comment in any level in terms of how I provide for my own security.” Webb then reaffirmed his belief in the Second Amendment; said he couldn’t comment on any aspect of Thompson’s case; denied, bafflingly, that he ever gave the weapon to Thompson (Did that mean he gave it to another aide who in turn gave it to Thompson?); and stated, most bafflingly of all, “I have never carried a gun in the Capitol complex.” Was Webb saying he’s carried a gun elsewhere in the District of Columbia? His office won’t answer that question.

Webb’s silence increases the suspicion that he either has broken or continues to break the D.C. law, more or less daring the local authorities to do anything about it. That could be posturing; as Dana Milbank points out in the March 28 Washington Post, nobody ever lost a vote in the state of Virginia by thumbing his nose at gun control. Legally, though, Webb’s evasiveness constitutes probable cause, entitling the next D.C. cop Webb encounters within city limits (but outside the Capitol) to frisk him. That’s probably the last thing D.C.’s new mayor, Adrian Fenty, and his new chief of police, Cathy Lanier, would like to see happen. I therefore recommend that Fenty or Lanier phone Webb and ask the senator straight out whether he intends in the future to obey D.C.’s gun laws. (Figuring out whether Webb has broken these laws in the past is the job of Thompson’s prosecutors.) If Webb answers anything other than “yes,” then Lanier should dispatch a police officer to frisk Webb at the senator’s next public appearance outside the Capitol. If Webb is carrying a handgun, that police officer should arrest him. Sounds absurd, I know. But how can the D.C. government do otherwise while on a daily basis it arrests less-well-dressed young black men for the very same offense?

There’s a solution to these absurdities — adopt a sensible gun law in Washington, D.C. The laws of neighboring Virginia — or, heck, Tennessee — would provide a good model. That would make it easy and legal for law-abiding citizens to carry guns, without having to rely on the political clout of being a U.S. Senator to avoid police harassment. After all, reliance on that sort of clout isn’t very populist.

Webb has said he’s for liberal laws on gun carriage, and, I believe, for national reciprocity laws that would make states recognize one another’s carry permits. So let’s see less talk about legislation on the subject and more action. Then we won’t have to worry about this sort of thing happening again.

On a humorous note, elsewhere in Slate Webb’s comments are parsed differently: “Coincidentally, in the new film Shooter, Ned Beatty plays a U.S. senator who says, ‘I don’t carry a gun,’ and then pulls out a Beretta 92.”

UPDATE: The gunnies weigh in! First, a humorous comment from reader George Lukes:

Ned Beatty’s character spoke the truth. He wasn’t carrying a gun, only a poorly designed gun wannabe, the Beretta 92.

Ouch! There are people who like ‘em, but I’d prefer a Sig, a Glock, or a model 1911 .45. Still, it’s a gun, sort of. And reader Michael Seifert writes:

Some observations I have not seen elsewhere.

1. Isn’t part of this story irresponsibility? As a former Boy Scout Marksman, I was drilled on not only the proper shooting of a firearm, but it’s handling, transportation and storage. A loaded handgun has only two places to be. On your person under immediate control, or in a locked case. Some would argue the locked case should never contain a loaded weapon. Carrying a loaded weapon in a shopping bag, backpack or briefcase is, to me, the height of irresponsibility on the part of the owner. Once Jim Webb surrendered his personal control of the weapon, it should have been secured AND unloaded. I would like to hear him explain that!

2. Congress members are free from arrest going to and from legislative business. Combine that with the 2nd amendment and I think the DC police would not be well advised to try to enforce what looks like a shaky law.

But the part that bugs me the most is the lack of gun owner’s responsibility.

That may be a little strong, but this was not good practice. If Webb’s too busy and distracted to take care of his gun — not implausible for a Senator — then he shouldn’t carry one. This is why busy, distracted people who can afford them hire bodyguards. Even if you possess all the skills to defend yourself, if you can’t properly implement them in your daily life you’re better off recognizing that fact. On the other hand anyone — even professional bodyguards, like the one working for Edward Kennedy who got caught with an illegal submachine gun in the Capitol — can suffer a lapse of attention.

As for the immunity claim, I don’t think it works, as the privilege against arrest extends to all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace. Illegal guns are a felony in the District; I’m not sure, but I think that illegally carrying a gun may qualify as a breach of the peace. I wouldn’t advise Webb to rely on that, anyway . . . .

And it’s not necessarily bad news for Webb on the political front. As Dave Hardy observes: “I thought Webb showed great potential for becoming the Right Sort of Democrat, and this tends to confirm it.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Shakey Pete wonders who the gun belongs to.