Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Appeals court: Judge didn’t have power to hear D.C. gun case

WASHINGTON — A lawsuit over the District of Columbia’s strict gun law hit a speed bump Tuesday when an appeals court ruled that a federal judge who halted the law’s enforcement didn’t have authority to rule on the case.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. overstepped his authority by ruling. The decision sets up the case for another round of legal wrangling.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge David B. Sentelle said that Scullin had not been specifically assigned the case, though he had been assigned an earlier, related case. Sentelle wrote that the fact that Scullin had ruled in the newer case was “quite understandable.” Scullin, a New York judge, was given authority to oversee a handful of cases in Washington. Those included one involving the city’s gun law, but Scullin was not specifically given authority to oversee the follow-up case.

“We realize that we are undoing the work of litigation to date, but we have no choice,” Sentelle wrote for the court in a five-page opinion.

The case will now be re-assigned to a new judge so that the legal challenge can continue, said Alan Gura, a lawyer for the group challenging the law. The ruling will have no effect on the current state of gun laws in the city, Gura said, because Scullin’s ruling halting the law’s enforcement had been itself been put on hold by the appeals court. The city’s law currently requires that to carry a gun a person must show a “good reason to fear injury to his or her person or property” or another “proper reason for carrying a pistol.”

The first issue the new judge will have to decide, as Scullin did, is whether enforcement of the law should be halted while litigation continues, Gura said.

Tuesday’s ruling is the latest in long-running litigation over the city’s gun laws. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling struck down the city’s longstanding ban on handguns, and the city rewrote its gun law in response, allowing people to have handguns for self-defense in the home but not to carry them in public.

Residents and others sued over the new law. Scullin struck down the city’s ban on carrying handguns outside the home in 2014, and the city again rewrote its laws, allowing residents to carry guns but only if they have the required “good reason.”

A spokesman for the District of Columbia’s Office of the Attorney General, which has been defending the city’s gun law, did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.