Marc Fisher: Columnist Says Washington Should Yield on Other Issues to Get Vote in Congress

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, March 12, 2009

Give ground on the guns; get the vote.

Just a few days ago, history was about to happen. After decades of dithering, Congress was going to give the District a vote in the House. But now it looks like raw politics on the Hill and pigheadedness among D.C. politicians may prevail.

One thing should be clear after all these years: In any face-off between Congress and the District, the lords on the Hill win. They control the budget. They sign off on the laws. If they want to send the mayor back to the family shoe store, they could do so tomorrow. On this plantation, that's how it will always be.

So what's the District to do when Congress decides it might be fun to make voting rights for Washingtonians contingent on stripping the city of the power to regulate gun ownership?

If you ask D.C. politicians, the answer is to stamp their feet and insist on having it their own way.

"It's a principle issue," says D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5). "As long as we're being asked to give our rights away, we're always going to be behind the eight ball. We just have to keep fighting until we're a state."

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) says: "I refuse to accept any link between guns and the vote. We were elected by the people to represent their views. That's the decision we made, and it should stand."

Good luck with that. The gun lobby is very good at this cynical game, and for all the lip service Democrats on the Hill pay toward equal rights for Washingtonians, the fact is that members of Congress from a thousand miles away will never really care about the plight of a city they consider their plaything.

Last month, the National Rifle Association and its supporters swooped in at the last minute to insist that Washington's half-million residents could not enjoy the most basic right of democracy unless the city was turned into a wide-open gun bazaar. Senators who quake at the prospect of being labeled soft on gun rights proceeded to pass the D.C. vote bill with a mischievous bonus attached -- an amendment nullifying the restrictions the D.C. Council placed on gun buyers and owners last year and stripping the city of the power to add gun control regulations.

Now the forces fighting for a D.C. vote have a choice: Insist on purity -- a clean voting rights bill with no gun bits attached -- and lose. Or cave to reality, knowing that a vote is forever, but gun policies will shift as popular attitudes evolve.

The District set itself up for this last summer. Having been smacked around by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the city's handgun ban unconstitutional, the council and mayor shot back with preposterously restrictive gun control rules -- essentially, a dare to the feds: Okay, we'll legalize gun ownership, but just try to leap over our new hurdles. Go ahead, try -- we'll sit back and laugh.

Who's laughing now?

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