Published January 13, 2015
The Supreme Court's repeal of the ban on handguns in Washington, D.C., may be a boon for a segment of the firearms industry whose last major windfall might have been in the heyday of the Dirty Harry movies: those who make and sell revolvers.
The court ruled that a blanket ban on handguns is unconstitutional, but D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and other Washington officials want to keep in place a prohibition on semiautomatic handguns — those in which a bullet clip is inserted into the gun's grip.
Such a ban would continue to outlaw 9-mm and other popular pistols that are legal in most other places around the United States. And it would make the classic six-shooter the only legal handgun in the District.
For revolver manufacturers, a ban on semiautomatics in Washington could be good for business.
"If there's a total ban on all semiautomatic handguns, oh, absolutely," said Paul Pluff, spokesman for Smith & Wesson, the nation's top revolver manufacturer. Smith & Wesson sold 185,000 revolvers in 2006, 48 percent of all revolvers made that year in the United States, according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms statistics released in January.
Pluff recalled the last time revolver sales went through the roof — back in the 1970s.
"Clint Eastwood — for several years — he was salesman of the year," Pluff said of the actor who portrayed vigilante cop Harry Callahan. In the Dirty Harry films, Eastwood's character brandished a Magnum .44-caliber Model 29 Smith & Wesson.
The District of Columbia is currently in the midst of two parallel efforts to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling. The mayor's administration is revising its rules on dealing with registration and ownership of handguns, and separately, the D.C. Council is working on changing the city's laws.
D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, who sponsored a bill last week to address the court's decision, told FOXNews.com he's willing to consider the fate of semiautomatic handguns, but he doesn't think it needs to be addressed immediately. His bill would not change the semiautomatic weapons law.
He said the first thing the council will need to do is address the court's ruling that D.C.'s law must include a self-defense provision.
"I think we should look at the definition of semiautomatics in relation to what's prohibited, but I'm seeing a short-term and a long-term approach. .... And in the short term, I don't think we need to address it," Mendelson said.
At the moment, neither the mayor's nor the council's efforts appear aimed at changing the city's ban on semiautomatic guns.
"Under District law that the Supreme Court did not disturb, automatic and semiautomatic handguns generally may not be registered. Revolvers in the home will be legal and, as before, residents remain free to register most shotguns and rifles," reads the city's Web site.
"Automatic and semiautomatic handguns generally remain illegal in the District of Columbia with this ruling," Fenty said at a news conference following the court's ruling.
In 1976, Washington, D.C., outlawed handguns altogether. And although the city allowed residents to own other firearms like rifles and shotguns, it was illegal from that point on to keep them loaded, even inside the home.
The only handguns that remained legal following the ban were revolvers owned by residents and business owners before the ban was instituted — and those, too, had to be kept unloaded. According to city records taken in the months after the 1976 ban, some 42,000 handguns were legally registered at the time, but none of the records remain on how many were residents, business owners, or police officers, who also had to register their guns.
According to ATF, 73 percent — or more than 1 million guns sold in the U.S. in 2006 — were semiautomatic pistols. National Rifle Association spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said if city officials try to keep semiautomatics outlawed, they can expect to hear from her organization.
"The NRA is going to ensure that D.C. actually complies with its own laws and with the Supreme Court's decisions," she said.
According to Parsons, D.C. code already has an allowance for some semiautomatic handguns — pistols with a magazine holding fewer than 12 live rounds were grandfathered under the now-overturned 1976 ban.
"They are falsely claiming that all semiautomatic handguns are banned," Parsons said. She said the NRA will wait until the city sets its new rules to decide how to respond.
The District interprets its prohibition to encompass all semiautomatic handguns. Alan Gura, one of the lawyers who represented D.C. residents seeking gun rights in District of Columbia v. Heller, said one line of D.C. code basically renders semiautomatic handguns as a machine gun, which would still be illegal.
Current city law defines a "machine gun" to mean "any firearm which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily converted or restored to shoot: a) Automatically, more than one shot by a single function of the trigger; b) Semiautomatically, more than 12 shots without manual reloading."
Gura said the Heller decision does not protect "dangerous or unusual weapons" — like fully automatic, military style machine guns — but it does protect weapons "in common use" or those people would use for "lawful purposes." Semiautomatics, which police departments have made their weapon of choice, would fall under that category, Gura said.
"It's unfortunate that, you know, they seem to think that a ban on semiautomatic firearms is constitutional. It's not," Gura said. "Semiautomatics are garden variety. It's a normal, non-exotic, typical technology. It does not let you spray bullets. ... People here 'automatic,' and they think, 'Oh, it's Rambo.' It's not."
Mendelson said he does have a limit to what he thinks is safe.
"I think an individual possessing a handgun that can fire 18 rounds — that is loaded and can fire 18 rounds semiautomatically — is a problem for public safety in the District," Mendelson said. "I don't know what the correct number is, but something less (than 18 shots)."
Peter Nickles, interim attorney general for the city, said it remains to be seen whether the city will include any updates on semiautomatics as part of its rules changes. Currently, the city is trying to balance a number of issues, including meeting the court's ruling and avoiding further legal challenges.
Pluff said the argument for allowing semiautomatic pistols might be overstated, at least when it comes to self-defense. Revolvers are more accurate, more reliable and easier to manage than higher-tech semiautomatic pistols in an emergency, he said.
"From an accuracy standpoint, from a reliability standpoint, revolvers are still very popular," Pluff said.
He said the chief priority in his mind for a self-defense weapon is "to take myself away from danger. ... For most people, most confrontations, it's not going to be a high volume of rounds being shot."
But, Pluff said, when it comes to safety inside the home — a major question in the minds of policymakers — semiautomatics and revolvers are no different.
"Any gun is safe if properly stored and properly handled. ... Whether it's a semiautomatic or a revolver, it's a mechanical device. If you put that gun on a table and nobody touches it and nobody misuses it, that gun will never go off," Pluff said. "Any gun can be safe or unsafe depending on the person's consciousness to safety."