How to buy and register a handgun in the District of Columbia: a survival guide

It’s been nearly two years since the US Supreme Court ruled on the Heller case regarding Washington DC laws regulating firearm ownership. Since that time, it has been legal to purchase and own a handgun within the federal district, though the process for obtaining a firearm legally is long and arduous when compared to other state procedures. DC Libertarian Examiner Kris Hammond has an article that details just what must be done to purchase and register a handgun inside the District of Columbia.

Any District of Columbia resident contemplating a handgun purchase in the near future should consider the advice of the lone gun dealer in the District, Charles Sykes.  When asked about the most frequent mistake made by would-be D.C. gun buyers, he said, “They don’t learn about the gun registration process first” before buying a gun.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) provides residents with the legal requirements and paperwork, but residents must discover through trial and error the most efficient manner of completing the mandatory regulatory checklist.  The following step-by-step guide to the D.C. gun registration process will fill some of the gaps.

1. Acquire the D.C. MPD “Firearms Registration General Requirements and Study Guide,” Application for Firearms Registration Certificate, and Statement of Eligibility.

Download the Study Guide located on the D.C. MPD website, and carefully read through all of the requirements to register a firearm.  However, the Application for Firearms Registration isn’t downloadable because it’s a triplicate form.  Upon request, the Firearms Registration Section (202-727-4275) will mail the Guide, Application, and Statement of Eligibility to the applicant.  The forms can also be picked up at 300 Indiana Avenue, NW, Room 2169 (located across from Judiciary Square Metro Station).

Sykes also maintains copies of the Application, but be aware that the Application asks for more than an address, phone number, and responses to potentially incriminating questions.  It also requires that the applicant provide all addresses of residence for the last five years (with dates of residence), as well as the applicant’s occupation, employers, and business addresses for the past five years (with dates of employment).

The Statement of Eligibility–wherein applicants are required to affirm under oath whether they have ever been “convicted of a prostitution related offense, being a vagrant, operating a bawdy house [brothel], abrogating strikers, or any felony” (Question Eight)–epitomizes D.C. regulatory minutiae.  Not only is this mysterious Statement not mentioned in the Study Guide, there is no apparent reference to the Statement anywhere on the MPD website.  However, MPD requires applicants to complete the form and have it notarized.  MPD does not, however, offer notary services.  Fortunately, Sykes will notarize the Statement upon request without any additional fee.

2. Attend the Mandatory Gun Safety Class

It’s a good idea to attend the mandatory five-hour (four hours of classroom instruction and one hour of range instruction) gun safety class early in the process, especially if you are a first-time buyer who is uncertain of what gun she wishes to acquire.  Sykes says that the course “gives people a chance to see what firearm they might want and to get advice from the firearm instructor about what gun might work best for them.”  Upon completion of the course, the instructor provides the applicant with a signed Firearms Safety Course Compliance form certifying course completion.

D.C. MPD provides a list of certified firearms instructors in the Guide, but, unhelpfully, instructors’ names and phone numbers are the only contact information provided.  James Wiggins of Sirius, the instructor recently hired by the author, charges substantially less for the course than some other area gun safety instructors.  Although highly-experienced gun owners relocating from Virginia or Texas may struggle to stay awake while watching the instructional videos, novice and intermediate gun owners will find the five-hour class valuable.  Wiggins’s class covered not only critical information concerning the legal thicket surrounding the rules of engagement, but also gun operation, shooting technique, and tactical tips for home defense.

3. Buy a Gun

There are no gun stores within the District of Columbia, and Sykes doesn’t sell guns, he only handles the transfer of firearms.  Handguns can be purchased on a reputable Internet website or any of the area stores (which usually double as gun ranges) in Virginia or Maryland.  Visiting a brick-and-mortar storefront is recommended because the buyer can ask questions of gun experts and test fire handguns on the range.

The seller of a firearm will typically charge approximately $25 for the overnight shipment to Sykes, as required by federal law.

Prior to a final purchase decision, verify that the gun may be registered under D.C. law.  Check the MPD website, which maintains a list of permitted guns.  Thanks to attorney Alan Gura (of District of Columbia v. Heller fame), a broad range of handguns may be registered.  In the wake of Heller Supreme Court case recognizing a constitutional right to bear arms, the District banned semiautomatic handguns and then attempted to sharply limit which handguns were allowed.  D.C. eventually reversed course due to legal pressure from Gura.

Buyers of semiautomatic pistols take note: It is illegal for D.C. gun owners to possess a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition.  Many semiautomatics, such as the Beretta 92FS, come standard with a 15-round magazine.  Although difficult to find at local stores, a 10-round magazine may be purchased on the internet for $22 + shipping and handling.

All gun owners with children living in the home should also invest in a gun safe.  The District imposes criminal liability for the negligent storage of firearms.  A gun safe permits the owner to prevent a child from acquiring a firearm while at the same time providing quick access to a firearm in case of emergency.  Gun locks may be difficult to operate under stressful circumstances and may not even thwart the will of a determined child.

4. Meet Charles Sykes

After purchasing the handgun, call Sykes at 301-577-1427.  After Sykes receives the firearm from the seller, schedule a time to meet with Sykes at his sparsely-furnished office (1213 Good Hope Road S.E.) located a 12-minute walk from the Anacostia Metro Station.

Sykes will run a criminal background check and hand you a federal form to complete.  D.C. law requires that applicant and Sykes sign the Firearms Registration Certificate “in the presence of each other.”  Remember to ask Sykes to notarize the Statement of Eligibility.  After this stage of the process is complete, Sykes will request a transfer fee of $125 cash.

5. Obtain Two Passport-Size Photos

Registration applicants must submit two passport-style photos taken within the 30 days prior to the date the application is filed.  If one is traveling on the Green Line from the Anacostia Metro, getting off at the Archives Metro Station will provide easy access to either Penn Camera (840 E Street N.W.) or CVS (435 8th Street N.W.). Both stores are located within walking distance of the Firearms Registration Section a few blocks away.

6. File Your Registration Application, Pay the Fees, Get Fingerprinted, and Take the Test

Navigate the metal detector at the entrance to 300 Indiana Avenue, N.W. and head straight back to the Firearms Registration Section.  The applicant should submit a completed Application form, notarized Statement of Eligibility, two passport photos, and a completed Firearms Safety Course Compliance form.  Thereafter, proceed directly to Room 1140B in the basement, where the cashier will accept cash payment for the application, ballistics test, and fingerprinting/FBI background check fees.

Upon returning to the Firearms Registration Section with a paid receipt, the applicant will be fingerprinted.  The multiple-choice test is not difficult as long as the Study Guide is carefully reviewed beforehand (most people incorrectly answer the question about antique firearms).  The applicant will also complete a form authorizing MPD to perform a background check.

7. Obtain the Approved Firearms Registration Certificate

Following the 10-day waiting period, the approved registration certificate may be picked up by the applicant or MPD will mail the registration certificate upon request.

8. Visit Charles Sykes Again

Travel to Anacostia again and provide Sykes with the approved registration certificate.  Sykes will transfer the firearm to the registered owner.

9. Visit the Firearms Registration Section Again

Newly-registered firearms must be brought to the Firearms Registration Section for a ballistics test.  The Guide suggests that this process takes approximately one hour.

10.  Take the Handgun Home or to the Shooting Range

D.C. law does not permit the possession of a handgun outside the home unless the individual is traveling to a gun range.  Therefore, after the registration process is complete, the handgun must be taken straight home or to a gun range.

Although the District of Columbia government has created the elaborate gun registration process ostensibly to reduce gun violence, Sykes says, “Gun violence isn’t a problem with the people who try to obtain the gun legally.”  The registration process adds substantially to the cost of the firearm.  If a firearm is purchased for $450, the new owner must thereafter contend with the following expenses:

  • $22.50 Virginia sales tax
  • $25 shipment fee
  • $125 gun class fee (may be more depending on the instructor)
  • $125 gun dealer transfer fee
  • $12 passport photos
  • $13 application fee
  • $12 ballistics test fee
  • $35 fingerprinting / FBI background check fee

The total fees and taxes are $369.50, nearly doubling the actual cost of a $450 firearm to $819.50.

Meanwhile, the process for obtaining a gun in Virginia involves three steps: (1) walk into a store, (2) pay for the gun while submitting to an instant background check, and (3) walk out of the store with the gun, which may be carried outside of a personal residence.  Law-abiding gun owners in the District might well exclaim: “If only it were that easy.”

That’s quite a difference from Virginia, or nearly any other state for that matter. Alan Gura and the Second Amendment Foundation are currently pursuing additional litigation to further restore 2nd Amendment rights to Washington DC as well as other localities where private gun ownership is severely limited.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (7)

  1. For your second gun, you can skip the $125 class fee, but I think that’s about it.

    As for private party transfers, I’m not sure you can do it. Even if it was a private party transfer from one DC resident to another, you’re still going to have to jump through all the hoops except possibly Sykes transfer fee.

  2. What about private party transfers? Then you could avoid the sales taxes and such, at least. That would shave about $175 from the overhead on a gun purchase.

    And I think I know the answer, but is there anything you can skip for your second gun?

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