Wednesday, September 10, 2008
FEW WOULD HAVE predicted in the awful days after Sept. 11, 2001, that just seven years later, members of Congress would actually be considering legislation to make the nation's capital harder to protect. That, though, is exactly what will happen today as a key House committee takes up a bill that would gut sensible restraints on guns in the District. It will be telling to see which holds sway with committee members -- the wishes of the National Rifle Association or the interests of homeland security.
The consequences of H.R. 6691 were made vividly clear yesterday as D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and other witnesses testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The District would be barred from requiring that firearms be registered or from taking other reasonable steps -- like those in place in countless states and municipalities across the country -- to regulate the possession or use of firearms. That means anyone not barred under federal law could legally own a small, easily concealable semiautomatic handgun or could carry a semiautomatic rifle on the street. Either can discharge as many as 30 rounds without reloading. "Imagine," Ms. Lanier told the committee, "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." Imagine protests or motorcades carrying foreign dignitaries, or even the Fourth of July celebration.
Ms. Lanier's scenarios -- "they scare me," she confessed -- terrify us, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Particularly irksome yesterday was the grandstanding of Republican Reps. John L. Mica (Fla.) and Virginia Foxx (N.C.), who were more interested in telling the chief how to do her job than in hearing her concerns. A notable Republican exception was Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) who expressed his commitment to home rule for the District. He can give real meaning to his words by helping to organize opposition to this bad bill. Just as Virginia prohibits its residents from purchasing more than one firearm per month and Connecticut prohibits semiautomatic assault weapons with detachable magazines, so should the District be permitted to make laws that make sense for its residents and visitors.
Observers are predicting a close vote today. Even if the better alternative proposed by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) advances to the House floor, chances are that the threat of the NRA to withhold endorsements will eventually result in amendments rendering gun control moot in the District. The hope is that time runs out before the Senate can take up the issue. At least, that must be what the Democratic leadership was counting on when it decided to gamble with self-government for the District.