GOP Sen. Rand Paul takes aim at D.C. gun laws

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became the second congressional Republican to seek to override local District legislation in recent weeks, putting the city’s relatively strict gun regulations in question Wednesday alongside a pending marijuana-decriminalization law.

Paul proposed attaching an amendment to a hunting-themed bill that would end the city’s registration and education requirements for gun owners, its bans on semiautomatic “assault-type” rifles and high-capacity magazines, and its tight restrictions on carrying any kind of gun outside the home.

The proposed amendment to the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act would in essence eliminate the District’s local gun statutes, leaving only federal firearms law to regulate gun ownership and use in the city. The measure is similar to a bill introduced in December by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) that has not advanced in the House.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), angered local officials by successfully attaching an amendment to a House spending bill in an effort to undermine the city’s marijuana decriminalization law.

A spokesman for Paul, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee overseeing District matters, noted in a statement that the courts have found that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to bear arms.

“Despite these Constitutional protections, law-abiding citizens of the District of Columbia are deprived the opportunity of access to handguns, rifles, and shotguns that are commonly kept by private citizens throughout the United States,” the statement said.

In May, a federal judge upheld the D.C. gun laws written after a landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision struck down the city’s three-decade-old handgun ban. That ruling is under appeal.

Paul’s proposal received a rebuke from Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional delegate. Norton (D) said she “hoped he would try to bring his position on D.C. issues into greater line with his signature philosophy against federal interference with local affairs.”

“Based on his support for reducing the power of the federal government and devolving that power to states and local governments . . . we had hoped he might be an ally in keeping Congress out of D.C.’s local affairs,” Norton said in a statement.

The amendment is not Paul’s first foray into D.C. affairs. He put forward District-focused amendments, including some concerning gun laws, that helped scuttle a bipartisan effort to grant the District greater budgetary autonomy.

The Senate voted Wednesday to allow debate on the Sportsmen’s Act; Paul’s amendment was one of many gun-related amendments expected to be offered thereafter.

Should the Paul amendment come up for a vote, it might well pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. A similar gun amendment attached to a bill that would have granted the District a voting seat in the U.S. House passed in 2009 with Democratic support. The gun measure’s inclusion in the Senate bill helped kill the voting-rights bill, a top priority for D.C. activists.

Also Wednesday, the lead sponsor of the District’s marijuana-decriminalization law proposed to allay congressional doubts about that effort by proposing a citywide anti-drug program.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) acknowledged that his proposal comes in response to a budget amendment passed by the House Appropriations Committee last month that would prevent the city from spending any funds to reduce penalties for currently illegal drugs.

Harris cited fears that the decriminalization law, set to take effect this month, would increase marijuana use, particularly among youths who are susceptible, he said, to permanent brain impairment.

Wells, who pushed for decriminalization because of racial disparities in marijuana arrests, said he was loath to act in response to Congress but felt he needed to take steps to ensure the amendment does not become federal law.

“This is a matter of social justice,” he said. “For me, it’s more important than home-rule pride.”

Wells’s bill would require the District’s mayor to begin a comprehensive campaign to educate the public on the effects of marijuana use. It would also require the mayor to make a regular report on anti-drug programs already in place for youths, including those in public schools.

In a statement, Harris said Wells’s proposal was a “good start.”

“I applaud the effort to help minimize the increase in teenage marijuana use resulting from the current decriminalization bill, but I believe that even stronger efforts will be necessary if we really want to avoid increasing teenage drug use,” he said.

Wells said he rejected Harris’s premise that decriminalization would increase youth pot use. But he said he felt a need to be active in addressing potential concerns on Capitol Hill — particularly in the Senate, whose Democratic majority could help fend off the amendment in a potential conference committee.

“I’m not turning a deaf ear to this,” Wells said. “I’m showing I want to be as responsive as possible.“

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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