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U.S. House, D.C. Council Wrestle Over Gun Control

By Paul Duggan and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The struggle to regulate guns in the District in light of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling sparked competing legislative efforts yesterday as members of Congress debated taking control of the issue and the D.C. Council implored them to leave it in local hands.

On the most significant day of legislative activity on gun control since the high court ended the District's 32-year-old handgun ban in June, the council voted unanimously to ease some contentious firearms restrictions while the U.S. House of Representatives considered a more dramatic measure that would limit the city's power to regulate guns.

The issue of gun control in the nation's capital has been the focus of intense, often tortuous debate for two months, since the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to own firearms. The court also held that local governments could impose reasonable restrictions.

"I implore the Congress to give this body, this mayor and this city an opportunity to find a solution," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), moments before the council voted without debate to end storage requirements for firearms and permit ownership of semiautomatic handguns.

"There's every reason to believe we're moving in the direction of a responsible solution," Gray declared.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said, "Let our elected officials make these decisions for the people we are elected to represent." Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) decried what she called "congressional trampling of our local prerogatives."

The measure passed by the council as emergency legislation was signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and takes effect immediately.

On Capitol Hill, though, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), a supporter of the House legislation, voiced skepticism about the council's action.

"I remain concerned about what some authors of the so-called emergency legislation . . . may try to pass in order to continue to drag their feet and continue to deny D.C. residents their constitutional right to protect themselves," Sessions said.

The House was debating a bill last night that would scrap almost all locally imposed gun control rules in the District, including the new handgun registration process. It would also severely limit city officials' ability to enact any future measure that goes beyond the firearms restrictions in federal law. The measure is expected to go to a vote today.

Although House passage was expected, Senate approval would be far less likely in the session's waning days, activists on both sides said. Opponents accused lawmakers of pushing the legislation to win favor with the National Rifle Association and gain political advantage in November's election.

Its main sponsor is Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.). More than 50 Democrats have added their signatures to the measure, which also has broad Republican support.

"Democrats were met in a dark alley with a do-or-die demand from the NRA, pointing a proverbial gun at their reelection" campaigns, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said, "D.C. does not need a second mayor and does not need a second city council, although there are members here today who seem intent on being both."

In a statement, the White House backed the House measure.

"It would immediately advance Second Amendment principles by directly protecting the individual right of law-abiding District residents to keep and bear commonly used firearms not only to protect themselves and their families but also to protect their homes and property," it said.

Foes of the bill have contended that it would allow D.C. residents to carry semiautomatic rifles on the streets, but the House measure that was debated yesterday would ban that possibility.

It would, however, allow residents to keep semiautomatic rifles in their homes, which D.C. law currently forbids.

The measure also would allow District residents to buy guns in Virginia and Maryland and would bar the council from taking any action to "discourage or eliminate" private ownership or use of firearms.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the District set up a registration process for revolvers. But it continued to ban most magazine-loaded semiautomatic pistols and required that handguns be kept unloaded in homes and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks when not being used in self-defense.

Supporters of the Supreme Court decision have complained that those restrictions and others violate at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the ruling. That prompted some House members to push for legislation that would do away with nearly all local gun control rules in the city.

While the House began debating that proposal, the council voted without debate yesterday to allow ownership of semiautomatics and to let handgun owners keep their weapons loaded and unlocked at home.

The emergency measure will remain in effect for a limited time while the council continues working on a permanent gun control law that probably would include the changes made yesterday.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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