D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's administration said Monday that it opposes a plan to ease penalties for nonresidents who inadvertently break the city's gun laws, which are some of the nation's most restrictive.
"The bill sends the wrong signal at the wrong time," D.C. Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fois said. "It is, of course, a well-established principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and we should not create any kind of expectation that ignorance of the gun laws of the nation's capital can be an exception."
Lawmakers are wrangling with a measure that allow prosecutors to offer "administrative dispositions" to nonresidents accused of possessing unregistered firearms or ammunition in the District, allowing them to avoid criminal convictions. Prosecutors would have exclusive discretion about whether to extend such an offer.
Under existing law, a person convicted of either charge faces up to a year in jail and a fine, along with a criminal record.
In August, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the proposal's author, said he was seeking to address "honest mistakes" by people who entered the District without knowing of its firearms restrictions.
Fois said Monday that the proposed revisions would have affected a maximum of 18 cases last year and that prosecutors already had appropriate ways to handle accidental offenses.
Even though Gray's administration is girding for a fight, the proposal drew support from a national prosecutors group, whose leader said it would allow for greater efficiency, and from defense lawyers.
"The District's gun laws sometimes criminalize conduct that should not be criminal," said Laura Hankins, the special counsel to the director of the D.C. Public Defender Service.
Hankins and others urged Mendelson to expand it to cover D.C. residents who unwittingly violate certain provisions of city law.
"The council should give District residents the same benefit of the doubt," Hankins said.
Mendelson said after the hearing that, he would consider including a provision that would benefit D.C. residents.
"It's worth looking at," Mendelson said. "It's harder to justify, primarily because there's a difference between a District resident -- who hears over and over again that you can't have a gun in the District unless it's registered -- and a Texas resident who may never have heard that."
Dick Heller, a litigant in the D.C. vs. Heller case that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down portions of the city's firearms laws, said Mendelson's measure -- in any form -- didn't go far enough.
Heller described the proposal as "a mere micro-step in the right direction."