D.C. Legislation Would Remove More Gun Limits
Council Vote Near on Storage, Other Rules

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.

"I'm confident that the changes will be approved," Mendelson said. After circulating a memo to his council colleagues Tuesday that outlined the proposed changes, he said, "I've talked with a number of members, and nobody told me they're opposed."

Peter J. Nickles, the city's acting attorney general, echoed other D.C. officials in June in saying that the District would continue to have tough firearms laws. "We are going to strictly regulate the registration of handguns," he said at the time. "And there will be no authorization of automatics or semiautomatics."

A Fenty spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, said Nickles was unavailable to comment on the legislation yesterday. "All I can say right now is that we will be working closely with the council next week," Hobson said in an e-mail.

When the city passed the emergency legislation allowing residents to register revolvers, officials stayed away from the hot-button topic of semiautomatics. Because the court ruling did not specifically address a separate D.C. law that bans semiautomatic handguns, that restriction was left in place. A new federal lawsuit has since been filed against the District, alleging that the ban on semiautomatics violates the Supreme Court decision.

The emergency legislation also required revolvers to be kept unloaded in homes and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks. Under the law, revolvers can be loaded and fired only if the owner is in reasonable fear of imminent harm from an assailant. Those storage requirements also are a focus of the new lawsuit.

Although the storage requirements would be done away with, a gun owner would be subject to prosecution if a child got hold of a loaded, unlocked firearm. If the child did not hurt anyone, the owner would face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail. If the child injured someone, the owner could be charged with a felony carrying up to five years in prison.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he was "a little concerned" about the District possibly eliminating safe-storage requirements for firearms, but he voiced no objection to other aspects of the council's legislation.

The National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist predicted that the legislation will not affect the House debate over the bill to virtually end local gun control in the District. Among other things, the House bill would allow semiautomatic rifles.

"D.C. has lost all credibility in dealing with this issue," said the lobbyist, Chris W. Cox.

Although the House is expected to vote on the gun bill Tuesday, the timing might change, depending on when legislators return from districts pounded by Hurricane Ike.

Congress has tried numerous times in recent years to repeal the District's gun laws. In 2004, the House approved a bill similar to the legislation that is expected to pass next week. That measure eventually died in the Senate.

This year, it is unclear whether the Senate will have time to act on the D.C. gun bill before it recesses at the end of the month for the November election.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that he had received a call explaining the bill from one of its most prominent supporters, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). Reid said he had not yet looked at the legislation.

"We have a lot of things to do in a short period of time," he said.

Opponents note that the bill has not attracted much attention in the Senate, unlike in the House, where the measure has 117 co-sponsors, including 57 Democrats.

"We think we've got a better chance of defeating it in the Senate, or keeping it from coming to a vote," Helmke said.

Some critics say House leaders, who have supported the District's quest for more autonomy, are allowing a vote on the gun bill only because they assume it will go nowhere in the Senate.

"I think the Democrats are trying to give cover to members in pro-gun districts, allowing them to take a meaningless vote," said Brian McNicoll, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

The House leadership agreed to allow a vote on the D.C. gun bill after Republicans appeared to be gaining enough support from conservative Democrats to bring a similar measure to the floor themselves. Such a move would be deeply embarrassing to the House leadership and could fracture the party's House contingent.

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