By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 12:09 AM
In the 2½ years since the U.S. Supreme Court ended the District's handgun ban, hundreds of residents in Washington's safest, most well-to-do neighborhoods have armed themselves, registering far more guns than people in poorer, crime-plagued areas of the city, according to D.C. police data.
Since the landmark court ruling in June 2008, records show, more than 1,400 firearms have been registered with D.C. police, most in the western half of the District. Among those guns, nearly 300 are in the high-income, low-crime Georgetown, Palisades and Chevy Chase areas of Northwest.
In all of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River - a broad swath of the city with more than 52,000 households, many of them in areas beset by poverty and drug-related violence - about 240 guns have been registered.
Although police declined to identify gun owners, citing privacy rules, they provided a breakdown by age, sex and location, from the start of firearms registration in July 2008 to the end of 2010. Of the 1,400-plus weapons, more than 1,000 are handguns, mainly semiautomatics, and the rest are rifles and shotguns.
In the 20016 Zip code, encompassing some of the District's wealthiest enclaves in upper Northwest, 151 firearms have been registered. That is more than 10 percent of the citywide gun total in an area with about 14,000 households, according to U.S. Census data.
No other residential Zip code in Washington has seen as big an influx of legal guns since the ban was ruled unconstitutional.
"Mine are loaded - locked and cocked - right where I can get them," said one gun owner in the 20016 Zip code. He is a 64-year-old K Street lobbyist who lives in the affluent Spring Valley neighborhood with his wife and teenage daughter.
"Crime is down to the lowest level, but people always feel insecure," he said. "And when you have responsibility for your family, you have to be prepared."
The lobbyist, an Army special forces veteran of the Vietnam and Afghan wars who retired as a two-star general, was one of five firearms registrants from different parts of the city who answered a reporter's query on washingtonpost.com.
All agreed to be interviewed, but some, including the former general, spoke on the condition of anonymity to guard their privacy.
Except for a burglary in the late 1980s, he said, he has never been a crime victim. He said he keeps two revolvers, two semiautomatic pistols and a Benelli 12-gauge "combat assault shotgun" in his home. The loaded ones are in a quick-opening gun safe in his bedroom closet. He said he wouldn't hesitate to use them.
In the Army, he said, he taught a course for Green Berets on how to make split-second shoot-or-don't-shoot decisions during raids in close quarters.
"You've got to think about this before you're confronted," he said. "You have to game-plan ahead. . . . When the time comes, you have to have already been there mentally, so you'll know what to do and when to do it."
Which he does: "When it comes to my family's safety, I've been there many times in my mind," he said. "I'd have no qualms about killing somebody in that circumstance."
A matter of economics
Police said there could be thousands more legal firearms in the city that were bought in past decades under different laws.
Although the demographic breakdown of gun registrants since 2008 is sparse and general, it offers a glimpse into firearms ownership in the nation's capital 32 months after the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own guns.
The court allowed reasonable regulations, and the District, unlike Virginia and Maryland, still bars carrying guns in public.
From Deanwood to Cleveland Park, from Takoma to Congress Heights, more than 1,200 men and about 170 women, most of them ages 30 to 60, have availed themselves of the right to pack heat in their homes. Some keep multiple firearms.
In the District's poorest, most crime-scarred precinct, Ward 8 in far Southeast, residents have registered about 140 guns. In Ward 3 in upper Northwest, where the violent-crime rate is nearly 10 times lower and the average family income is more than five times higher, about twice as many firearms have been registered.
It's open to conjecture why residents in some of the District's toughest neighborhoods have registered fewer guns than people in other parts of the city. D.C. police Lt. Jon Shelton, head of the firearms registration unit, said it could be simple economics.
"You have to figure, what are legitimate guns costing now?" he said. "A basic revolver is going for $350 or $400. And you're talking about $650, $700 for a quality 9 millimeter. So who's got that kind of money to just throw out there for a gun?
"Legitimate people I'm talking about now. A lot of them, these days, they're having a hard enough time putting food on the table for their kids."
More than 40 gun registrants are in their 80s, the records show. The oldest: a 90-year-old man in upper Northwest with a semiautomatic. Nearly 300 firearms have been registered by people older than 60, most of them men.
"Let me put it to you this way: I feel a heck of a lot safer now than I used to," said a 69-year-old retired computer specialist living alone in the Chillum area of Northeast. In his Zip code, 20011, there were 126 guns registered, including his three semiautomatics, which he keeps handy on both floors of his house.
"I don't have confidence in the police in terms of response time," he said. "If we are unarmed citizens, then we have no protection, and we're automatic victims."
He is a native Washingtonian, a grandfather of five who has lived in his house near Eastern Avenue for 35 years, he said. It is "a nice neighborhood" that has seen an increase in nuisance offenses by young "hoodlums" in recent years. "We have a lot of older folks living around here," he said, and they've become fed up and fearful.
"I'm one of those outspoken-type individuals," he said. "I don't hesitate to call and report things; that's my reputation. . . . Now, it's to the point where my neighbors, they're afraid to call 911, because somebody will know it. So they've gotten in the habit of calling me up instead, and I'm the one who calls the police."
Not long after the city lifted its handgun ban, he said, he took his .380-caliber Colt out of storage in Virginia and bought two .45s for about $650 each. He said he keeps them loaded, without trigger locks, in two quick-opening gun safes.
"This summer, I had a couple of beer bottles thrown at my windows by people around here who are involved in activities and know my reputation," he said. He said he wonders whether a night will come when one of them breaks in, and he'll have to defend himself.
"Hopefully it won't ever get to that point," he said.
No one knows how many legal guns are in private hands in the District.
After the city enacted its handgun prohibition in 1976, a registration period began for residents who owned firearms before the ban. People who wanted to keep their weapons under a grandfather clause flocked to police headquarters to fill out forms. About 23,000 guns were registered.
Some were rifles and shotguns, but most were pistols. With a few exceptions, semiautomatics were banned, and revolvers were the only kind of handguns allowed. Because those one-time registrations did not have to be renewed, there's no easy way to tell how many of the 23,000 guns have stayed in the city over the decades.
While the handgun ban was in effect, D.C. law allowed people to continue bringing rifles and shotguns into the city. One-time registrations were accepted for thousands of such weapons through the years, in addition to the 23,000 guns registered in 1976.
The registration rules passed in 2008 apply only to residents who have brought guns into the District since the Supreme Court ruling. Eventually, though, people living in the city with legal revolvers, rifles and shotguns since before 2008 will be required to re-register those weapons.
"We're working on all that now," Shelton said. "We don't know how many of these people are still here. I mean, it could be thousands. We're not going to find out until we make them come back in."
But he said the 1,400-plus registrations since the Supreme Court ruling probably represent just a fraction of the total number of legal firearms in the city.
From 1976 to 2008, residents with shotguns, rifles and grandfathered-in revolvers were required to store them in their homes, unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks. But those and other restrictions were loosened or done away with in the gun laws passed by the D.C. Council after the Supreme Court decision.
Semiautomatic handguns are now permitted, with a maximum 10-round magazine capacity. And the safe-storage rules have been scrapped - although if a juvenile gets hold of a loaded gun that isn't trigger-locked, the owner can be prosecuted for a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on whether the youngster hurts anybody.
Registrants must submit to a criminal-background check, complete a four-hour firearms training class (including an hour of range shooting), pass a 20-question written test and allow police to test fire and keep ballistics records of registered handguns.
Police said they could provide no data on registered guns being stolen, misused or used in self-defense, nor could they cite any specific incidents.
"Oh, I'm sure there's been some misuse," said lawyer Alan Gura, who successfully argued against the ban before the Supreme Court. "People steal and misuse stuff every day, whether it's guns or cars or kitchen knives. It's no surprise that people steal stuff and do bad things. That's the ordinary course of life."
But, he added, "we heard all sorts of predictions that there would be blood on the streets and carnage and all kinds of Wild West stuff if people in the District of Columbia were allowed to legally own guns. Obviously, that has not come to pass."
At the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which lobbies for tough gun restrictions, President Paul Helmke said it's too soon to judge the impact of increased firearms ownership on safety and public health in the District.
"It takes a while for these things to be statistically analyzed," he said. "One thing that does happen is, something like 40,000 guns are stolen from people's houses every year in this country. Another thing that happens, statistically, is we see increases in domestic violence and suicides tied to the number of guns people have around.
"We'll have to wait and see."
'I wouldn't hesitate'
Michael Grinage, 54, grew up in Washington, served as a nuclear weapons security officer in the Navy, then came back to the District, buying a house in the Hillcrest area of Southeast in 1993. He and his wife have four daughters and a son, all living on their own.
Grinage, who works in information technology for the IRS, said he has worried for years about crime in his neighborhood east of the Anacostia River.
"A lot of car thefts, robberies," he said. Then one day a dead body turned up on the lawn next door. "And there was the incident where someone broke into my house while we were away. My daughter and two grandchildren were here alone."
When the city began allowing handgun ownership, Grinage said, he got one "within a week," paying $620 for a .45-caliber Glock, which he keeps loaded in a gun safe. It's one of 79 registered firearms in the 20020 Zip code.
"I've told people, if someone breaks in, I'm not going to just shoot," he said. "I'd detain the person until the police came." Or at least he would try. "If I had to shoot, I would," he said. "Based on my military training, I know I wouldn't hesitate."
Federal law requires handgun buyers to purchase their firearms in the states where they live, which is a problem for many D.C. residents who want pistols, because there are no gun stores in Washington. Some, like the retiree in Chillum, already owned guns that they kept elsewhere. But most, like Grinage, need a middleman.
In the District, the middleman is Charles Sykes Jr., the city's only licensed firearms dealer. He works quietly, without advertising, in a hard-to-find office in Southeast.
After Grinage picked out his Glock at a store in Maryland, he arranged for it to be shipped to Sykes's office. That allowed him to formally buy the gun in the District, for which Sykes charged a $125 fee. Skyes has said that he acts only as an intermediary and doesn't stock firearms at his office on Good Hope Road.
Gura said he thinks that the cumbersome middleman process has discouraged many D.C. residents from buying handguns.
"At some point, somebody is going to put up a retail operation in Washington, and that's when you'll see the number of gun owners go up," he said. "It'll become accessible to the people who've lived here all their lives and need it most."
In the meantime, Gura is litigating another gun-rights lawsuit, hoping a federal court will force the District to adopt rules under which qualified handgun owners would be allowed to carry their weapons in public - perhaps concealed, maybe openly.
He has allies among the hundreds of Washingtonians already armed in their homes, including Rick Du Bose, 59, an occupational safety manager for the Energy Department. He lives in Shepherd Park in Northwest, in the same Zip code as the Chillum retiree.
Du Bose said he bought a Ruger .357 magnum "before the ink was dry" on the law permitting handgun ownership. There are no children in his house, only him and his wife, so he sees no need for a gun safe, he said.
Besides, "the likelihood of having to brandish a firearm or shoot to disable or kill within the confines of your home is relatively slight," he said. He worries more about "the crackheads, disenfranchised and other flotsam and jetsam" menacing folks on the streets.
"I make no apologies for advocating concealed firearms-carry for law-abiding citizens," Du Bose said. He said he considers it a right under the Second Amendment.
For now, though, his .357 stays indoors. "Loaded," he said. "Right there in the bedstand."