Gun Bill Could Strip D.C. Of Control

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) plans to introduce a simpler alternative to the legislation.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) plans to introduce a simpler alternative to the legislation. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Congress plans to take up a bill this week that would repeal the District's gun-registration requirements and make it easier for residents to legally buy semiautomatic weapons, raising alarm among city officials that the measure would effectively end local gun control.

Chiefs of the D.C. police, the Capitol Police, the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies are expected to testify against the bill during a House hearing today. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) plans to introduce a substitute bill that would simply mandate that D.C.'s gun laws conform to a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the city's 32-year-old ban on handguns.

But the tougher legislation is likely to prevail in the House, according to congressional sources and supporters and opponents of the bill. It has won the backing of 48 Democrats, many facing reelection in strongly pro-gun areas, and is expected to pick up broad support among Republicans.

The legislation has four main goals. It would repeal the D.C. ban on semiautomatic pistols and rifles; eliminate the city's gun-registration requirements; allow District residents to purchase guns in Virginia and Maryland; and abolish the regulation that guns kept at home be unloaded and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks.

Opponents of the legislation said it could have even more far-reaching effects because of what they termed its vague provisions.

"You could drive a truck through this language," said Peter Nickles, acting D.C. attorney general. He noted that the bill would bar the D.C. government from passing any laws that would "unduly burden" residents wanting to have or use firearms as long as they met federal requirements.

"I'm very concerned that, under that legislation, the gun-rights advocates could challenge almost any restriction we've placed on gun ownership," Nickles said. Opponents said they feared that if the bill became law, people could carry loaded semiautomatic weapons or .50-caliber sniper rifles in the city.

But supporters said such worries were wildly exaggerated.

"That is a desperate attempt to mislead both members of Congress and the lawful residents of the District of Columbia," said Chris W. Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "There's nothing in this legislation, nor in the intent of this legislation, that would allow people to carry loaded firearms outside of their home."

The bill is the latest in a series of efforts by Congress to overturn the District's strict gun laws. The measure was in response to the Supreme Court's ruling in June that the District's law was too restrictive and violated Second Amendment rights.

After that ruling, the District replaced the ban with temporary legislation that permitted residents to register revolvers for self-defense in the home. But the city continued to put numerous restrictions on handgun ownership.

Another D.C. law continues to ban machine guns and includes a broad definition of such weapons, encompassing most semiautomatic arms. Magazine-loaded semiautomatic pistols, the type of weapons commonly carried by police officers, are the most popular handguns on the market.

D.C. officials point out that the Supreme Court left room for the city to continue to regulate guns and that the justices did not delve into the issue of semiautomatic weapons.

But supporters of the bill accused the D.C. government of flouting the court decision.

"The bill that I've introduced is a direct attempt to restore Second Amendment rights, and this is its sole objective," said Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) in a statement.

The D.C. Council has already scheduled hearings this month on its gun regulations. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wrote last week to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asking them to allow the city to rewrite its own laws.

But Pelosi decided to act after Republicans indicated that they could gather enough signatures to bring a D.C. gun bill to the floor. Although Democrats have a 37-seat advantage in the House, dozens of party members are strong gun-rights proponents, reflecting opinion in their districts.

Facing the possibility of being outflanked just weeks before the election, House Democrats introduced their own legislation. The Democratic leadership has promised to bring it to a vote, several congressional sources said.

"It's something a number of our members have indicated they support," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi. "There's some concern, obviously, among leadership about violating the District's sovereignty . . . so they're trying to work that out and see where we go from here."

Cox, the NRA lobbyist, said the organization would be scoring legislators on how they vote on the bill. "This is our number one legislative priority," he said.

Although the bill is expected to pass in the House, possibly as soon as this week, the outcome is less clear in the Senate. Legislation often faces more procedural hurdles in that chamber, and Congress is expected to adjourn Sept. 26.

If the bill became law, it could create numerous complications for the D.C. government. The city's gun-registration law includes a variety of regulations that would be thrown out, according to proponents and supporters of the bill.

Congressional staffers said the D.C. government would be permitted to establish a new system for gun registration, as long as it did not "unduly burden" residents seeking to purchase guns.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company