Panel Votes to Back City on Gun Limits

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is trying to stop a measure that would severely limit the District's power to enact gun laws.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is trying to stop a measure that would severely limit the District's power to enact gun laws. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

A House committee approved a bill yesterday that would allow D.C. officials to write their own gun laws, as D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and others tried to forestall more drastic congressional intervention.

But Norton (D) acknowledged that the real showdown on the District's gun laws will come on the House floor, probably next week. There, a tougher bill that would eliminate most D.C. gun regulations probably will be offered as a substitute for Norton's measure. The full House will probably approve the tougher measure, according to congressional sources.

"I wish I could tell you this is the end of this," Norton said after yesterday's 21 to 1 vote in favor of her bill in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), the leading Republican on the committee, said yesterday that the important thing "isn't what happens here, but what happens on the floor next week."

The congressional actions come less than three months after a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the city's 32-year-old ban on handguns. The District has replaced the ban with temporary legislation that permits residents to register revolvers for self-defense in the home. But many members of Congress have complained that the District remains overly restrictive.

Norton's legislation would allow D.C. officials to rewrite their gun laws within 180 days to comply with the court ruling. It is aimed at stopping the more sweeping bill sponsored by Rep. Travis W. Childers (D-Miss.) that would bar the D.C. government from passing laws that "discourage or eliminate" the use of firearms.

Childers's legislation focuses on four areas. It would repeal the D.C. ban on semiautomatic pistols and rifles; eliminate the city's gun registration requirements; allow D.C. residents to purchase firearms in Virginia and Maryland; and abolish the regulation that guns at home be unloaded and safeguarded.

Norton and her allies on the committee have reacted with alarm to the Childers bill, saying it would allow residents to carry loaded semiautomatic weapons and .50-caliber sniper rifles around the District, increasing the risk of a terrorist attack.

They note that the Childers bill would only ban residents from carrying pistols around the city, unless they have a special license. It has no prohibition on toting semiautomatic rifles, and therefore authorities would have no charge to use against anyone doing so, according to a legal analysis by the government reform committee.

The National Rifle Association, a strong supporter of the Childers bill, disputes that interpretation. "Any lawyer who has such creative ability to read that into the law probably went to the University of Disney World," said Chris W. Cox, the chief NRA lobbyist.

Nonetheless, supporters of the bill are considering tweaking the language to remove the possibility.

Even if the House approves a D.C. gun bill, the Senate remains another question. It is not clear whether the Senate has time to act before Congress adjourns Sept. 26.

Norton's legislation cleared the committee yesterday with the support of 18 Democrats and three Republicans, including Davis. The lone no vote was cast by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who favors the tougher measure. Nineteen committee members were absent or cast no vote.

The Democratic House leadership agreed weeks ago to permit a floor vote on the Childers legislation, after realizing that Republicans probably could gather enough votes to force the issue.

Some have criticized the Democratic leadership for trying to have it both ways -- letting Norton get credit for fighting the gun bill while ultimately planning to allow the tougher measure to reach the floor. Passage of the NRA-backed legislation is expected to help Democrats in pro-gun districts who face reelection in November.

Davis said that a hearing this week on Norton's bill wasn't really about gun-safety issues. "We're here out of concern for the political safety of some conservative Democratic members of Congress," he said.

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