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Limit on Gun Law Passes; Senate Vote Unlikely

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to legalize semiautomatic rifles in the District and repeal its gun registration laws, but the bill's future appeared in doubt as a prominent senator announced she would try to block it.

"If this bill comes to the floor of the United States Senate, I will do everything in my power to stop it," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

The House bill passed 266 to 152, with the support of 85 Democrats. It was the second time in four years that the chamber had voted to overturn most D.C. gun laws. The 2004 measure died in the Senate, and a similar result is likely this time.

Nonetheless, the latest House action may have already had a tangible effect. The District announced Tuesday that it was further easing its gun restrictions to comply with the historic Supreme Court decision in June tossing out the city's 32-year-old handgun ban. House members said they were not impressed because the city had been so slow to act.

The House debate on the D.C. gun bill began Tuesday night and stretched past midnight, with fiery speeches about the city's crime rate and Second Amendment rights. But legislators from both parties charged that the vote was less about D.C. affairs and more about scoring points with constituents and the National Rifle Association, which had called the bill its top priority.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who fought to have the House approve language simply ordering the District to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, said her effort failed "courtesy of NRA threats and campaign contributions."

Still, Norton appeared optimistic that the broader measure would not become law. She said at least a half-dozen senators planned to put "holds" on the legislation. Such a move subjects the bill to hurdles that would be difficult to clear before the Senate's adjournment, scheduled for Sept. 26.

"Many other efforts are underway by our friends in the Senate to assure that the bill dies," she said.

Feinstein, a former mayor and longtime supporter of gun control, said yesterday that she believed the legislation passed by the House "places the families of the District of Columbia in great jeopardy."

Proponents appealed to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the measure up for a vote before the congressional session concludes.

"The president wants to sign the bill this year," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, adding that the president was urging the Senate "to take action on the House-passed bill as quickly as possible to ensure that the residents of the District are able to exercise their Second Amendment rights in a robust and meaningful way."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) made a similar request in a letter to Reid that had been signed by 36 senators as of yesterday evening.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for the majority leader, said Reid planned to consult with other senators on how to proceed on the bill. But he added that legislators "have a long list of things to do in the remaining days of the Senate, and not a lot of time to do them."

Time limitations aren't the only reason the bill might not pass. Some Democrats are wary about subjecting senators -- including presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- to a vote on the hot-button issue just weeks before the election.

D.C. officials expressed outrage yesterday at the House vote. The bill was changed at the last minute to address one of their biggest concerns, that it would allow residents to carry semiautomatic weapons in the streets. Instead, residents could have such firearms only in their homes.

But the bill would sharply limit the District's ability to set up a new gun registration system.

"I am extremely disappointed that the House of Representatives has rushed to trample on the rights of D.C. taxpayers and moved to significantly and dangerously change our gun laws," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

He noted that the vote came hours after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) signed emergency legislation that allows city residents to own semiautomatic pistols, the most common type of handgun. The law still would ban semiautomatic rifles.

The House measure was sponsored by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), a little-known freshman facing a tight reelection race. The Democratic leadership agreed to allow a vote on it after a similar Republican bill gained enough momentum to potentially reach the floor.

Only seven Republicans opposed the bill, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland. Supporters included Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who has championed D.C. voting rights and has opposed past congressional efforts to loosen the city's gun laws.

Democratic legislators from the Washington area voted against the gun bill.

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