A move to repeal virtually all the District's gun restrictions has received a boost in the Senate, where gun rights supporters led by Idaho Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig are seeking to get the measure passed as an amendment to the city's 2005 budget.
If the effort were to succeed, it would markedly increase the chances of the repeal passing Congress this fall. A similar measure in the House has more than enough co-sponsors to pass that chamber and has been promised a floor vote this fall by GOP House leaders.
But Craig's strategy also could complicate the Senate's efforts to finish its business and adjourn for the fall election campaign.
"Clearly, our Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, and the evidence demonstrates that where law-abiding citizens have the right to keep arms, crime goes down," said Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, who is on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. "The fact that D.C. has sky-high crime rates is a testament that something needs to be done."
Craig and pro-gun lobbyists are canvassing members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is scheduled to consider the $8.2 billion D.C. budget Tuesday. "If we don't have the votes, we won't do it," Whiting said. "That's what we're looking at now."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) assailed the Republican-led push to undo the District's gun laws, which date to the early years of home rule in the city in the 1970s, saying that such a move would lead to more violence and bloodshed in the city.
Williams used his weekly news conference Wednesday to issue a rare challenge to lawmakers, reading the names of 14 District children who have been shot to death this year and asking whether Congress remembered them.
"It's really an insult to the memory of people in this city who have died by gun violence," Williams said, calling himself "incensed."
"This is not the time . . . to be arming these kids, arming these gangs and arming crazy people with assault weapons," he said.
The mayor said that Republican gun rights advocates are "using our District as a pawn. It's an incredible assault on home rule." He said the changes would increase the availability of weapons to criminals and undermine his police and public safety initiatives.
Whiting responded to the remarks with mock surprise. "Funny, those guns are illegal. It's amazing that criminals break the law," he said.
Craig is one of 34 co-sponsors of a Senate bill dubbed the "D.C. Personal Protection Act," which is authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). The companion House measure is sponsored by Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.).
Both bills would end the District's long-standing bans on handguns and semiautomatic weapons, roll back registration requirements for ammunition and other firearms and decriminalize possession of unregistered firearms or carrying a handgun in one's home or workplace. Both measures also would bar the city's elected mayor and council from passing gun limits that go beyond federal law or "discourage . . . the private ownership or use of firearms."
Analysts on both sides of the gun debate said the House vote would help the GOP majority by mobilizing its gun rights base and by creating an uncomfortable decision for rural Democrats and moderate Republican members. Passage of Hatch's bill in the Senate was deemed unlikely, however, because the legislation is bottled up in an unfriendly committee and because a majority of senators in March supported two key gun control measures.
But attaching a repeal of D.C. gun laws to a budget bill -- one of only a few bills that Congress must pass to keep the government operating before members hit the campaign trail this fall -- would allow the repeal's supporters to overcome such obstacles. Floor debate on an individual item in the District budget is unlikely, especially if the time-pressed Senate rolls the D.C. spending bill into a giant, catch-all federal spending measure.
On the other hand, if such an amendment does provoke a fight over gun limits, such as renewing a federal ban on some types of semiautomatic weapon that expired Monday, Senate business could grind to a halt.
A spokeswoman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said, "Senator Craig has not discussed the issue with Chairman Stevens, and the chairman has not indicated whether or not he will support the amendment."
Democratic committee aides called the Craig effort a long shot, noting that members sympathetic to gun rights, such as Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (La.), ranking Democrat on the D.C. subcommittee, would probably defer to the District's right to home rule.
Republican Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, announced his opposition to "a bad idea" and predicted that it would lack the votes to succeed. "We ought to let the District of Columbia make that decision, not impose our will," said DeWine, whose home state includes several big cities combating gun violence. "There ought to be some deference to elected officials on issues of public safety."