Jim Webb, Scofflaw?
Does he flout D.C.'s handgun ban?
In the District of Columbia, it is unlawful to possess a handgun unless you are a law-enforcement official or (under certain circumstances) a retired policeman, or unless the handgun was registered in your name before 1976, when the gun ban was first enacted. Yet Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., seemed to hint at a March 27 press conference that he does not obey this law. When I phoned his office on March 28 seeking a clarification, spokeswoman Jessica Smith said the senator had none to offer. "We haven't said anything further," she explained, citing an ongoing criminal investigation. "At some point we will say more."
The criminal investigation involves a Webb aide named Phillip Thompson, who was arrested March 26 for carrying a loaded pistol into the Senate. The story seemed unremarkable at first. The gun reportedly belonged to Webb, who reportedly had given it to Thompson for safekeeping before flying to New Orleans. Thompson apparently put the gun in his briefcase, forgot he had it, drove into D.C., and was busted after walking through an X-ray machine at the entrance to the Russell Senate Office Building. He now faces prosecution, because to bring a gun into D.C. even absent-mindedly is against the law. (My guess is that the judge will end up dispensing a severe tongue-lashing and perhaps a fine; Thompson's already spent 28 hours in jail awaiting arraignment.)
The story became noteworthy when Webb, at the March 27 press conference, began discussing his personal habits:
[E]veryone here knows that I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, that I have had a permit to carry a weapon in Virginia for a long time, and I believe that it's important—it's important for me, personally, and for a lot of people in the situation that I'm in, to be able to defend myself and my family. Since 9/11 for people who are in government I think in general there has been an agreement that it's a more dangerous time. Again, I'm not going to comment, again, with great specificity about how I defend myself, but I do feel that I have that right. And if you look at people in the executive branch, look at the number of people who are defending the president and other members of the executive branch, there is not that kind of protection available to people in the legislative branch. We are required to defend ourselves, and I choose to do so.
To one of the reporters present, this sounded as though Webb were saying not only that he carried a gun with him when he was in Virginia, where it's legal, but also that he carried a gun with him when he was in D.C., where it's not. (D.C.'s handgun ban was recently struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals, but it remains in force while the city government seeks a review by the full D.C. Circuit.) The reporter therefore asked, "Do you, senator, feel that you are above Washington, D.C.'s gun law?" Webb replied: "I'm not going to comment in any level in terms of how I provide for my own security." Webb then reaffirmed his belief in the Second Amendment; said he couldn't comment on any aspect of Thompson's case; denied, bafflingly, that he ever gave the weapon to Thompson (Did that mean he gave it to another aide who in turn gave it to Thompson?); and stated, most bafflingly of all, "I have never carried a gun in the Capitol complex." Was Webb saying he's carried a gun elsewhere in the District of Columbia? His office won't answer that question.
Webb's silence increases the suspicion that he either has broken or continues to break the D.C. law, more or less daring the local authorities to do anything about it. That could be posturing; as Dana Milbank points out in the March 28 Washington Post, nobody ever lost a vote in the state of Virginia by thumbing his nose at gun control. Legally, though, Webb's evasiveness constitutes probable cause, entitling the next D.C. cop Webb encounters within city limits (but outside the Capitol) to frisk him. That's probably the last thing D.C.'s new mayor, Adrian Fenty, and his new chief of police, Cathy Lanier, would like to see happen. I therefore recommend that Fenty or Lanier phone Webb and ask the senator straight out whether he intends in the future to obey D.C.'s gun laws. (Figuring out whether Webb has broken these laws in the past is the job of Thompson's prosecutors.) If Webb answers anything other than "yes," then Lanier should dispatch a police officer to frisk Webb at the senator's next public appearance outside the Capitol. If Webb is carrying a handgun, that police officer should arrest him. Sounds absurd, I know. But how can the D.C. government do otherwise while on a daily basis it arrests less-well-dressed young black men for the very same offense?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Sen. Jim Webb by Win McNamee/Getty Images.