- An exception to a Capitol gun ban lets lawmakers store their licensed firearms in their offices.
- Some have chosen to wear them on their person, dodging security measures after the Capitol siege.
- Lawyers told Insider the exception doesn’t give lawmakers a pass to walk around with guns in DC.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Gun-toting lawmakers at the US Capitol insist on bringing their firearms to work, and it’s causing a stir in the halls of Congress.
A 54-year-old loophole in the building’s firearms ban has emerged in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, during which hundreds of pro-Trump extremists took control of the Capitol, putting the nation’s lawmakers and their staff in danger.
In response to the breach, Capitol police implemented new safety protocols, including newly installed metal detectors and mask requirements.
Freshman GOP congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who has engaged with QAnon conspiracy theories and owns a gun-themed restaurant in Colorado, recently refused to walk through the metal detector in the building, or to allow Capitol police to search her bag.
She had also released an ad in which she wore a gun on her hip in the city and said she “will carry [her] firearm in DC and in Congress.”
This week, GOP Rep. Andy Harris also tried to carry a concealed gun onto the House floor. When he was stopped at the metal detector, he tried to hand the gun to a colleague, who refused because he’s unlicensed to carry the weapon.
Altogether, at least 10 Republicans in Congress were seen walking around the machines to get into the chamber.
Their actions enraged some of their colleagues.
“The moment you bring a gun on the House floor in violation of House rules, you put everyone around you in danger,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told CNN this week. “I don’t really care what they say their intentions are, I care what the impact of their actions are. And the impact is to put all 435 members of Congress in danger.”
The Republican lawmakers bringing guns to the building are leaning into a 1967 exemption to the Capitol grounds gun ban, which says that no federal or District of Columbia laws restricting firearms “shall prohibit any Member of Congress from maintaining firearms within the confines of his office” or “from transporting within Capitol grounds firearms unloaded and securely wrapped.”
That exemption doesn’t allow lawmakers to bring the guns into the House chamber and nearby areas, according to Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California who has reignited his effort to repeal the exemption.
“I’ve been pushing for years to change this outdated rule, knowing there was an inevitable risk in allowing Members to carry guns in the Capitol,” Huffman said in a statement. “While we’d like to think we could rely on common decency, we now have colleagues who are QAnon and white supremacist sympathizers, incite violence and insurrection, and have even bragged about bringing guns into the House Chamber.”
Even with this controversial loophole in place, though, the exemption doesn’t work as a free pass to flout local laws, DC defense attorneys told Insider.
To get the guns onto Capitol grounds, they have to bring it through DC – which has some of the strictest laws in the US – and that’s not something that can be done overnight.
“I find it hard to believe that many of the members who are in Congress right now went through this process to get their DC gun license,” Attorney Nabeel Kibria, who specializes in defending people accused of gun crimes, told Insider.
District gun laws are among the strictest in the country
The process to register a firearm in the District of Columbia is not easy, and it was only within the last five years when the process to carry a concealed gun, as Harris did, was even established.
In order to legally own a gun in Washington, DC, the firearm needs to be registered in the city.
The gun, which has to be bought outside of the city because none are sold there, needs to then be shipped to the DC police department, attorney David Benowitz, of Price Benowitz LLP, told Insider.
When the gun arrives at the department, the buyer can go to the station and fill out registration and background check paperwork, have their fingerprints taken, and be photographed. After the 10-day waiting period, if they’re approved, the can pick up the gun. The registration allows them to have the gun, but not carry it on them.
The process has to be completed for each gun a person owns.
“If all you have is the registration, and say you want to go to the firing range, you need to keep it in the trunk, unloaded, in a container that’s secured. Benowitz said. “The ammunition needs to be in a separate container.”
To carry a loaded gun on your person, the process is far more difficult, Benowitz said.
“You have to take classes. You have to be approved for it. It is not a simple process,” Benowitz said. “I can’t speak to a specific legislator, but I can tell you that they haven’t done that, once they cross that border into the District of Columbia, and once they get inside the Capitol, it’s illegal.”
“If it’s readily available, it’s a felony,” Benowitz added, referring to firearms in DC.
Open-carry is always illegal in the city. A spokeswoman for the DC police department told Insider there is at least one member of Congress who is registered to own a gun in the city, but she couldn’t release the name, and there is no immediate way for her to check how many Senate and House staff have gone through the registration process.
Capitol police didn’t return an email seeking clarification on details of the exemption.
Harris’ office also didn’t immediately return a comment on whether he was licensed to carry in Washington, DC, but issued a statement to The Hill.
“Because his and his family’s lives have been threatened by someone who has been released awaiting trial, for security reasons, the Congressman never confirms whether he nor anyone else he’s with are carrying a firearm for self-defense. As a matter of public record, he has a Maryland Handgun Permit,” the statement to The Hill said. “And the Congressman always complies with the House metal detectors and wanding. The Congressman has never carried a firearm on the House floor.”
In Boebert’s ad, she bragged about walking around Capitol Hill with her Glock on her hip.
It’s unclear if she has a permit to carry a concealed weapon in the city, but police Chief Robert Contee III said during a news conference this week that his department would be in contact with her.
Being licensed elsewhere isn’t a pass to carry in DC
If someone is caught illegally carrying a concealed weapon in the District of Columbia, they tend to face three charges: possession of an unregistered firearm, possession of unregistered ammunition, and a felony charge of carrying a pistol without a license, Kibria said.
The district’s close proximity to Virginia and Maryland means the gun laws change quickly within just a short drive around the area.
It’s not uncommon for defendants charged with gun crimes to simply have not realized they still had their gun with them when crossing the border into the city, Benowitz said.
Even if they can immediately prove they’re licensed at home, they can still be – and often are – arrested, Benowitz said, adding: “DC doesn’t have reciprocity with any other district.”
Being licensed at home might get some leniency for the defendant down the road, when working out a plea deal, but “it has nothing to do with whether the law is broken,” Benowitz said.
Kibria, who has been contacted by at least 15 defendants who were arrested at or around the Capitol on January 6 while carrying guns, said he has recently seen an uptick in business from defendants in gun-related cases.
“Over the last four years I’ve had plenty of MAGA, I guess we can say Trump supporters – many wealthy ones – who are big Second Amendment people. They love their guns. In their states they’re licensed and they carry their guns with them everywhere. They sleep with their guns,” he said. “They come to DC thinking it’s OK, but they will be arrested.”
In these cases, when defendants are people who are properly licensed to carry firearms in their home state, lawyers might be able to get their three charges – including a felony- knocked down to a misdemeanor, he said.
“Now if it’s a little more, because they don’t have a proper license at home, then they will probably have to plead guilty to the felony version of carrying a pistol without a license, and my job is to make sure they don’t do any jail time,” Kibria said.
In either situation, they’re firearm is confiscated and they don’t get it back, he added.
Without knowing whether the members of Congress bringing guns into the Capitol are properly licensed, Kibria still finds it unnerving that they have been dodging metal detectors that were installed after the insurrection.
“My very first job out of college, I worked on the Hill. I worked for Sen. Tom Carper,” Kibria said. “It’s haunting to me. Per the law, if the Capitol police are called, anyone who is violating the law and doesn’t have their DC gun license should be arrested on the spot.”
“However, in terms of the context, it’s not like any other store or office, it’s the halls of Congress,” he said. “I think enforcement is all on the leadership of the Congress and the House.”