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D.C. Gun Ban Repeal Is Set Aside

Senator Drops Effort for Now, Will Await House Action This Fall

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page B01

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig announced yesterday that he has abandoned a bid to seek a repeal of D.C. gun laws in a Senate committee, and Senate GOP leaders indicated that they did not have time to get bogged down in a debate over gun limits in the weeks before Congress adjourns for the fall elections.

Craig dropped his effort as opponents of the proposed repeal, including parents of District residents killed by gunfire, lobbied senators and held a news conference on Capitol Hill. A similar proposal has been introduced in the House and has more than enough co-sponsors to pass that chamber.

Marita Michael, whose 16-year-old son was shot to death in the District last year, speaks against the proposed repeal of the gun laws. (Photos Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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"If the U.S. Capitol can be handgun-free, why can't we?" asked Hannah Hawkins, director of the Children of Mine Center, a youth services agency in Anacostia. She was joined at the news conference at the Dirksen Senate Office Building by other youth advocates, parents, the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO and business groups led by the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

"There is nothing honest, there is nothing just, there is nothing compassionate in these bills," said Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center in the District. "They are a blatant attack by people who do not live in this city, and who do not care about the quality of life in this city, on the self-determination for those of us who do."

Advocates for repeal of the District's long-standing bans on handguns and semiautomatic weapons argue that the gun limits are unconstitutional and that they have been ineffective at combating crime.

Craig spokesman Dan Whiting acknowledged yesterday that the senator lacked the votes to pass the repeal as an amendment to the District's 2005 budget at a meeting today of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Whiting said gun supporters in the Senate instead will wait for House action on a D.C. gun ban repeal authored by Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.). GOP House leaders have promised a floor vote on Souder's bill this fall.

"We don't want to take any wind out of their sails. We're going to let the House act first and go from there," Whiting said. Aides to Craig and gun rights lobbyists said the senator could try to amend the District budget bill when it reaches the Senate floor.

But Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said such a floor amendment probably would trigger an unwelcome standoff with Democrats by reviving a fight over a 10-year-old nationwide assault-weapons ban that expired last week. President Bush has said he supports the ban; Democratic challenger John F. Kerry has argued that Bush did nothing to push Congress to extend it.

"At this point, we want to move all the appropriations bills as expeditiously as possible," Call said. "We want to get our work done, and having an assault weapons debate is probably not going to move something expeditiously."

In an interview yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) promised just such a debate if Craig pursues a repeal of D.C. gun laws. She said that if Craig introduces the repeal on the Senate floor, she will revive a bid to extend the national ban on 19 types of semiautomatic weapons. Feinstein garnered 52 votes in the 100-member Senate in March to extend the national ban, though the legislation to which the ban was attached was eventually scuttled.

"I think it is reprehensible that the people of the District enact their own laws, and then the gun lobby comes along and is going to use the Senate as a vehicle to abolish them," Feinstein said. "This will create a major, major impediment on the floor if he does it, I promise him that."

At the news conference, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the D.C. gun ban repeal was being pushed by "irresponsible extremists" and would fail in the Senate.

After the event, members of a group called Citizens to Save D.C. Gun Safety Laws lobbied at the offices of Craig and the Senate assistant minority leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who are among 33 co-sponsors of a Senate bill to roll back the D.C. gun limits. The activists included Marita Michael, mother of Devin Fowlkes, 16, who was shot to death outside Anacostia High School in 2003, and Kenneth E. Barnes, father of Kenneth Barnes Jr., 37, who was killed in his U Street clothing store in 2001.

Lawmakers "choose to put guns on the street. They choose to put the rifles on the street that killed all these people," Michael said.

Whiting said the group had a cordial meeting with Craig's chief of staff, Michael O. Ware. He noted that Craig lives in the District when Congress is in session and added, "There's nothing extreme about the U.S. Constitution."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company