D.C. Legislation Would Remove More Gun Limits

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier testified this week during a House committee hearing on a bill that would throw out the District's gun restrictions.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier testified this week during a House committee hearing on a bill that would throw out the District's gun restrictions. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Duggan and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 13, 2008

D.C. officials, coping with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that threw out the city's handgun ban, have drafted legislation that would do away with several remaining firearms restrictions, including safe-storage requirements and a provision that bars ownership of semiautomatic pistols.

The legislation could come up for a vote in the D.C. Council as early as Tuesday -- the same day the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would virtually end local handgun control in the District.

The developments mark another step in what has become a dramatic shift in public policy regarding firearms in a city still plagued by gun violence. Thirty-two years after the first generation of elected D.C. officials under home rule enacted the nation's toughest gun control statutes, banning handguns entirely, the current leaders face a different political and legal climate and appear resigned to debating how best to have a less restrictive law.

Addressing contentious issues that have arisen since the Supreme Court ruled in June that the city's handgun ban was unconstitutional, council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said yesterday he has worked with the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in drafting the legislation. The changes would go beyond emergency legislation passed by the council in the wake of the court ruling that allowed qualified residents to keep revolvers, but not semiautomatics, in their homes.

Critics of the emergency legislation have complained that the city violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Supreme Court decision. They include members of Congress who have gained momentum in recent weeks in their efforts to override the D.C. laws.

Although the move by the city to ease handgun restrictions coincides with the House effort to virtually strip the District of its power to regulate firearms, Mendelson said officials are not seeking to placate members of Congress. He said the proposed changes, which he will urge the council to pass Tuesday, result from a careful review of the Supreme Court decision in the weeks since it was issued June 26.

"I think we're addressing the Supreme Court ruling and, coincidentally, addressing Congress's concern," said Mendelson, chairman of the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. And by addressing the Supreme Court ruling, he said, "it will pull out the underpinnings of the argument for that legislation on Capitol Hill."

When they imposed the handgun ban in 1976, then-Mayor Walter E. Washington (D) and a 13-member council dominated by liberal Democrats were reacting to public concern about crime, which began rising nationwide in the mid-1960s. The ban was their boldest public policy initiative.

Today, only council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) is left from that group. The new generation of leaders represents a city that is still struggling with homicides and other violence but whose politics and public policy have been significantly altered by gentrification. The debate over handgun control is more complicated now, just as the weaponry is more sophisticated.

Even though Democrats hold majorities on the council and in Congress, members' view are more diverse today than in the 1970s. And so is public opinion among African Americans in the city, who made up a majority of the population then, as now.

Unlike Congress and the federally appointed three-member commission that oversaw the city government for decades before home rule, the D.C. leaders who enacted the handgun ban in 1976 were directly attuned to city residents, having come mostly from the ranks of civil rights and community activists. In dealing with gun control now, though, the current mayor and council are bound by a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

The council proposal does not give residents blanket approval to own semiautomatic pistols, which have become the most popular kinds of handguns. It would ban magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. It also would repeal a regulation barring a gun owner from registering more than one pistol. In addition, the legislation would do away with the requirement that handgun registrants submit their weapons to D.C. police for ballistics testing.

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