Washington DC criminal law has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country. While many states have open carry laws that allow people to carry firearms, offer reciprocity for registration and permits to other states, and generally treat gun ownership as a Constitutional issue, DC has mostly criminalized gun possession in the nation’s capitol. Several DC gun statutes have been stricken down by federal courts over the years but local lawmakers continue to make gun control a high priority. Accordingly, it is very easy for law abiding citizens to get caught up on the wrong side of DC gun laws.
Is gun possession in DC a felony?
Several types of gun offenses exist within the DC code. Some offenses are misdemeanors and some are felonies.
Possession of an unregistered firearm (“UF”) is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail and/or a $2,500.00 fine. Second, unlawful possession of ammunition (“UA”) carries the same penalty. That means someone caught with a gun and bullets can get charged for both the gun and the bullets. The government can prove possession under two theories either actual or constructive possession. Actual possession is when police find a firearm in someone’s actual possession–like on one’s person. The government can prove possession under a constructive possession theory by proving the defendant knew about the gun and had the ability and intent to exercise control over it. A common example of constructive possession is a gun being in a backpack near the defendant or in a car not on the defendant’s actual person.
In addition, the government has to prove the defendant did not register the firearm with the DC government. This commonly affects out-of-state residents who come into DC without knowing their home state gun law do not apply. The District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General (“DC OAG”) usually prosecutes misdemeanor gun crimes like UF and UA. However, carrying a pistol without a license is a felony offense that the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (“USAO”) prosecutes. Accordingly, if someone is charged with carrying a pistol without a license, the federal government will prosecute the case.
What is the difference between possession and carrying?
DC gun laws make it a felony to carry a pistol without a DC concealed carry permit. Accordingly, if someone is arrested with a gun on their person or within arms reach in a vehicle, the government will likely charge them with felony carrying a pistol without a license. Sometimes in a UF, UA case prosecuted by the DC OAG, the prosecutor may offer diversion where the government will dismiss the case in exchange for the defendant completing certain conditions like community service.
On the other hand, the USAO virtually never allows a defendant to complete some form of diversion for a carrying a pistol without a license case (“CPWL”). Often times, the USAO will refuse to give a misdemeanor plea offer to a defendant charged with CPWL. Accordingly, whether you are charged with felony CPWL or just the misdemeanors can make a huge difference on the likely outcome of the case just based on who prosecutes you.
What are the requirements to register a firearm in DC?
The requirements to register a firearm in DC are extremely strict. In 2008, the Supreme Court, in Heller v. District of Columbia, ruled that the District’s statute barring registration of firearms was unconstitutional. In response, the DC City Council passed a law making it legal to register a firearm but administratively very difficult. The reason was likely the Supreme Court’s language that stated while it was unconstitutional to bar gun possession across the board, passing “reasonable regulation” for gun owners was permissible. At the same time, the DC City Council passed a law barring carrying a pistol and for several years DC had no legal mechanism for an individual to obtain a permit to carry a firearm. Several years later, in Palmer v. District of Columbia, a federal District Judge ruled that an absolute bar on carrying a pistol was unconstitutional. In response, the District government passed a law and regulations permitting individuals to obtain a concealed carry permit.
How do you get a concealed carry permit in DC?
The licensing scheme for obtaining a concealed carry permit in DC, like registering a handgun, is also extremely difficult. In the law’s first iteration, the DC City Council imposed a “special need” requirement where an individual had to demonstrate a specific need for a firearm for self-defense. That meant the applicant had to demonstrate either they had a specific threat against them or they worked in a job that was inherently dangerous like driving an armored truck.
That law was recently struck down in Wrenn v. District of Columbia, by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Despite that change in the law, it remains extraordinarily difficult to get a carry permit in DC. These court decisions have provided some grounds to challenge gun convictions in DC under certain circumstances. It is also possible under some circumstances, a basis might exist to withdraw a guilty plea to a conviction where the gun statute was later ruled unconstitutional.
What are other gun offenses in DC?
Carrying a pistol without a license is a felony crime in DC, which makes it felony to carry a firearm on one’s person anywhere in DC. The fact that the firearm may be lawfully registered in a different state is not a defense to carrying a pistol, unregistered firearm, or unlawful possession of ammunition nor is an out of state carry permit a defense to CPWL.
If someone has a prior felony conviction, DC criminal law absolutely prohibits that person from possessing a firearm. Felon in possession of a firearm carries either a one or three year mandatory minimum jail sentence depending on the nature of the prior felony conviction. Mandatory minimum means that the judge cannot lawfully suspend that part of the sentence no matter what other mitigating factors exist in a case. Felon in possession laws are common across the United States as even the most gun friendly jurisdictions do not want individuals with prior felony convictions carrying guns.
Possession of a firearm during a crime of violence (“PFCOV”) is a serious crime in DC that carries a mandatory minimum of 5 years in jail. The DC code broadly defines crimes of violence and getting charged with PFCOV is extremely serious.
If you are charged with a gun crime, you should immediately consult an experienced DC gun lawyer. Whether you are an out-of-state or DC resident, navigating the court system where the government aggressively prosecutors gun possession crimes is difficult. Contact Scrofano Law PC today for a full case evaluation.