WASHINGTON – The D.C. Council on Tuesday could pass new laws restricting the ability of gun owners to modify weapons and require police to seize guns while enforcing protective orders in domestic disputes.
The latter provision – known as a “red flag law” – is gaining popularity, with variants implemented in more than a dozen states, including Maryland. The D.C. version would mandate that authorities take firearms out of the hands of suspected abusers more quickly than is permitted under existing laws. Other proposed laws, if passed, would the ban rapid-fire attachments known as bump stocks and increase penalties for extended magazines, accessories that allow guns to fire faster and hold more bullets.
The package, the Firearms Safety Omnibus Amendment Act, unanimously passed the council during its first hearing on Dec. 4. The final vote is Tuesday.
D.C. Councilman Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, chairman of the public safety committee, called the package “smart legislation that looks at how we address gun violence.” He said it makes sense to remove, even temporarily, firearms “from someone expressing they will do harm to themselves or others.”
The D.C. Public Defenders Service opposed the bills at a public hearing in March, saying it was concerned that authorities would have too much latitude to seize weapons. It also said the gun-accessory restrictions are unnecessary because such items are regulated under existing laws.
By law, a judge cannot order firearms seizures until after a temporary restraining order, in place for 14 days, expires and a more expansive order is implemented – typically after a court hearing in which both sides can present arguments. The new law would require the subject of a temporary restraining order to surrender firearms. Failure to do so would be considered unlawful possession of a firearm and carry a penalty of two to 10 years in prison.
“The risk of homicide is 20 times higher after a domestic dispute, and removing guns from these situations makes sense,” D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, said at a hearing on the bill in March. She said the first few days after the temporary restraining order “is the most dangerous period for the victim.”
The law also would allow law enforcement to petition a court to remove firearms and ammunition from a person deemed to be a significant danger to others, a provision called an “extreme-risk protective order.” In November, a police officer in Maryland fatally shot a man while serving such an order after authorities said the man became angry and grabbed a gun.
Bump stocks are used to accelerate the firing of semiautomatic rifles, essentially turning them into fully automatic military-style weapons. They are already prohibited in the District. A bump stock was used by the gunman in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. The shooter opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers, firing 1,100 rounds, which killed 58 people and wounded 851.
The bill also would add to the penalties for people caught with a gun magazine that can hold more than 10 bullets, increasing it from a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year sentence to a felony that carries a sentence of up to three years. A rifle with a high-capacity magazine was used by one of four shooters who opened fire in a Northeast Washington courtyard in August, killing 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson in a hail of 76 bullets.
The administration of Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser supports the package of proposed laws, but it objects to an immunity clause that says the subject of a protective order who has illegal firearms seized cannot be criminally charged.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham sent a letter to the council noting the objections.
“It will, ultimately, create an environment more accepting of illegal guns and the crimes they are used to commit,” the chief wrote in the letter. He called the immunity measure a “highly unusual and, I believe, counterproductive step” and said extending the protective-order process to protect illegal guns “will undermine efforts to protect the community and other potential victims of violence.”
Allen defended the provision, saying many times loved ones or friends are reluctant to call police “because they are concerned about the criminal consequences” even though they “want to be able to remove the firearm.” This, he said, “is aimed at making sure people do the right thing.”
Katerina Semyonova, the policy counsel for the D.C. Public Defender Service, testified in March that the bills would add to “confusing and overlapping” gun laws in the District.
Semyonova said gun accessories such as large-capacity magazines “are already amply covered in code.” She added: “There are no gaps in the District’s ability to prosecute illegal possession of firearms. . . . The District does not need new laws for ancillary offenses.”
She also objected to the protective orders, saying her office is concerned that under both provisions, judges and police will be allowed to seize weapons without allowing the owners due process – a chance to object in court.
“As drafted, it makes the otherwise lawful possession of a firearm an unlawful possession as soon as an order is signed by a judge,” Semyonova said. “The bill criminalizes conduct that is protected by the Second Amendment, and the person would have no reason to believe it is against the law.”