Coalition Pushes To Keep Gun Ban

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2004

A coalition of District leaders, gun-control groups and families of crime victims yesterday urged the U.S. Senate not to adopt a measure that would repeal the city's ban on handgun ownership and gut the city's 28-year-old gun laws.

Although Senate Republican leaders said they doubt they will take up the measure, an amendment to lift the ban is set for a vote this afternoon as part of the national debate over a bill to shield gun makers and dealers from lawsuits.

The fate of the D.C. provision was in flux yesterday. Senate majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) initially sponsored the amendment to give other senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), an opportunity to press the issue.

Hatch indicated yesterday afternoon through a spokeswoman that Republicans could go forward if Democrats force votes on national gun control measures, such as requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows and extending for 10 years the current ban on 19 types of semiautomatic assault weapons, which expires in September.

By last night, however, Frist spokesman Nick Smith said Republicans were unlikely to force the D.C. question. "It appears it [the D.C. amendment] will not be introduced," Smith said, citing conversations between Frist and Hatch. "There will be a couple [of] other close votes . . . The main thing is to focus on the liability issue."

Last week, President Bush urged passage of a bill without controversial amendments. Separately, a GOP leadership source who spoke on condition that he not be named said Republicans were not sure if they could win the vote to repeal the D.C. ban.

The legislation comes as the District, which ranked as America's deadliest large city in 2003 with 243 homicides -- 77 percent gun-related -- reels from a string of shootings of schoolchildren: Devin M. Fowlkes, 16, slain Oct. 30 outside a dance for Anacostia High School; James Richardson, 17, gunned down Feb. 2 inside Ballou Senior High School; and Jahkema Princess Hansen, 14, shot seven times days after she apparently witnessed a drug-related killing.

Yesterday, parents of slain children and city leaders made dramatic appeals for the Senate to reject the proposal to end the city's gun ban.

After a 20-minute meeting with Frist's chief of staff and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Kenneth E. Barnes, whose son, Kenneth Jr., 37, was shot to death in his U Street clothing store in 2001 by a robber high on PCP, said he had made a passionate plea.

"This is not chess. You're playing with the lives of our children and our families," Barnes said he told Frist's staff. "Our families are being murdered, not your families. You don't see our suffering; all you do is sit up here and make a decision, and you don't even take us into consideration."

At police headquarters, Norton (D-D.C.), City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, business leaders and anti-violence activists held a news conference in front of some of the 385 illegal weapons seized by police this year. Officials said if the Senate measure passed, killings and accidental shootings would increase, and gun stores would expand into the city. Last year, 59 percent of illegal guns confiscated in the city were traced to Virginia or Maryland.

"The greatest threat to the safety and security of the District of Columbia is not al Qaeda. It is street crime," Ramsey said, predicting that illegal gun seizures would triple if the gun ban were repealed. "There is just nothing good that I could possibly imagine that could come from it."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) urged Frist not to support the D.C. change in a telephone call last week. He called the Senate Majority leader again yesterday but was unable to reach him, Williams spokesman Tony Bullock said.

The District banned possession of handguns in 1976, exempting police, security guards, retired law enforcement agents and residents who already owned legally registered guns.

Since then, the city's toughest-in-the-nation gun laws have emerged as a regular political football in congressional debates over the constitutional right to bear arms and the battle to curb gun violence.

Five years ago, the House adopted an amendment, 213 to 208, to roll back the District ban. The issue became moot when the underlying bill failed to pass.

Standing on the Capitol steps after the session with Frist's staff, Marita Michael, 41, mother of Devin Fowlkes, who was slain by a stray bullet, shared her grief. "I miss him so. . . . I miss his smile. I miss the way he said, 'Mama, I'm all right,' " Michael said.

"A 15-year-old boy shot and killed my son. We've got babies killing babies," she said.

"They talk about leaving no child behind. My son was left behind. These two other children who were killed were left behind."

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