By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier assailed a new bill yesterday that would eliminate most of the District's gun laws, telling a congressional panel that the measure would allow residents to carry loaded semiautomatic rifles in the streets, creating a nightmare scenario for homeland security officials.
"Imagine how difficult it will be for law enforcement to safeguard the public, not to mention the new president at the inaugural parade, if carrying semiautomatic rifles were to suddenly become legal in Washington," she said.
Lanier sparred repeatedly with legislators who said the measure was necessary to allow D.C. residents to protect themselves from criminals. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) expressed support for the idea of legislators' being able to carry arms for protection on their way home from the Capitol at night.
But whether the bill would allow residents to sling semiautomatics over their shoulders in downtown Washington is in debate. Although the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a legal analysis saying it would, the National Rifle Association disagreed.
"They're trying to twist this language to create some concern that is not legitimate," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. He has described the gun measure as the group's "No. 1 legislative priority" in the congressional session that is drawing to a close.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Travis W. Childers (D-Miss.), was written after the Supreme Court struck down the city's 32-year-old handgun ban in June.
It would abolish the city's gun registration requirements and allow residents to own semiautomatic pistols and rifles. It also would permit them to buy guns in Virginia and Maryland and would scrap a regulation that firearms in homes be kept unloaded and safeguarded except in cases of imminent danger.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is making a last-ditch attempt to head off the bill, offering legislation that would allow the District to rewrite its regulations to conform with the Supreme Court ruling.
The Norton bill is expected to come up for a vote today in the government reform committee. But even if it passes, congressional staffers and lobbyists on both sides of the issue expect the more sweeping legislation opposed by the D.C. government to prevail in the House.
It is not clear whether there is enough time for the Senate to act on the gun bill before Congress adjourns this month
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), head of the government reform committee, invited the leaders of major law enforcement agencies in Washington to testify on the broader gun bill yesterday. The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service did not appear, and Waxman criticized the Bush administration, saying it had "blocked their appearance."
A Secret Service spokesman, Malcolm Wiley, declined to comment when asked why no one from the agency appeared.
Lanier and Phillip D. Morse, chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, testified that a law allowing people to carry semiautomatic pistols and rifles in public could have dire consequences because the city hosts so many top politicians, dignitaries and special events.
Lanier said checkpoints, fencing and other measures used to prevent people from using firearms at gatherings such as Fourth of July festivities would be useless against semiautomatic rifles.
"The change in that security is drastic," she said.
Supporters of the gun bill responded that terrorists were unlikely to buy weapons legally. The real issue, they said, was the District's high crime rate and residents' ability to defend themselves.
"I find it really astonishing the elected officials and appointed officials here would want to continue practices that do no good for the citizens," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC).
Referring to Lanier's remark that D.C. residents can already protect themselves at home by legally owning shotguns or pistols, Foxx said, "What an arrogant comment."
After the Supreme Court ruling, the D.C. Council passed temporary legislation to allow residents to acquire revolvers for self-defense in the home. Critics have said it is too restrictive.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said yesterday that he will seek to amend the temporary legislation at a session Tuesday to address some of the critics' concerns. The council is expected to work on new, permanent legislation in the next weeks.