Had the District of Columbia’s tough gun laws not been in place on January 6 — had insurrectionists been able to legally amass all the firearms they wanted during their march to the U.S. Capitol — we would have seen a bloody massacre rather than a handful of deaths.
The city requires all guns to be registered and a license must be obtained to carry a concealed firearm (open carry is prohibited). Anyone bringing a gun into the District must apply for a registration certificate immediately (or within 48 hours if they notify MPDC). D.C. also bans semiautomatic assault rifles like the AR-15. D.C. Police successfully intercepted two insurrectionists attempting to break these laws before they could reach the Capitol. [One had a Glock handgun, a Tavor X95 assault rifle, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The other was transporting an AR-15 and a shotgun.] Guns are also well regulated on the Capitol grounds. Civilians are prohibited outright from carrying them.
Remarkably, only one gun was confiscated from rioters at the Capitol on January 6, by the D.C. Police. During a joint oversight hearing in the Senate on March 3, Jill Sanborn, the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, confirmed her agency took no firearms from arrestees at the scene. She also reported that only a single shot was fired during the siege — by a Capitol Police officer, who killed rioter Ashli Babbitt just before she could breach the final door to the House Chamber.
Court filings in the case of one of the Oath Keepers arrested for participating in the insurrection, Kelly Meggs, show that he and other planners were well aware of the District of Columbia’s strict gun laws. On December 25, while coordinating with other extremists on Facebook, Meggs responded to a request for a “list of gear and attire” to be brought to Washington. “Dc is no guns,” Meggs answered. “So mace and gas masks . Some batons . If you have armor that’s good.”
The list of weapons confiscated from rioters on January 6 included “a baseball bat, a fire extinguisher, a wooden club, a spear, crutches, a flagpole, bear spray, mace, chemical irritants, stolen police shields, a wooden beam, a hockey stick, a stun gun, and knives.” A badly outnumbered group of Capitol Police officers, less than a quarter wearing riot gear, fought bravely in “brutal, medieval-style combat” against insurrectionists trying to prevent the Senate from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Evidence has emerged that their goal was to kidnap and/or kill Vice President Mike Pence and Members of Congress.
At one point, rioters got within 100 feet of Pence (who refused to go along with outgoing President Donald Trump’s directive to unconstitutionally block the certification vote as president of the Senate). By way of comparison, the effective range of a typical handgun is 75–90 feet, depending on the skill of the shooter. The effective range of an AR-15 is approximately 1,200–1,800 feet. It is difficult to see how outmatched Capitol Police would have protected Pence and Members of Congress against rioters armed with such weapons.
A grotesque number of Capitol Police officers suffered injuries during the attack (there were 140 in all, including brain damage and the loss of an eye). But only one officer, Brian Sicknick, was killed by rioters (in close combat). The melee weapons used by rioters were simply nowhere near as lethal as firearms.
A riot in Michigan in April of last year offered a chilling glimpse at what January 6 might have looked like. Rioters were protesting Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter-in-place order to prevent transmission of the Covid-19 virus. Michigan’s weak gun laws allowed them to come heavily armed to Lansing and, once there, enter the State Capitol building with their loaded handguns and rifles. In a near-catastrophe, rioters came close to breaching the House chamber doors and had to be physically restrained by the Michigan State Police and Sergeants at Arms. Other protesters with assault rifles stood in the gallery above the chamber looking down on officers, legislators, and staffers. Turned into sitting ducks, some legislators wore bulletproof vests. [Miraculously, no shots were fired.]
Given Republicans’ long campaign to repeal the District of Columbia’s gun laws, the future survival of these regulations is no certainty. That should be at the top of the minds of Members of Congress, Capitol Police, and other planners preparing for future violence at the Capitol.
[Disclosure: During my tenure at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, I worked to defend the District of Columbia’s gun laws in Congress. Alongside CSGV executive director Josh Horwitz, I also assisted chair Phil Mendelson and other members of the D.C. Council in rewriting the city’s gun laws following the Supreme Court’s 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision.]
[Updated on April 2, 2021]