Hard Line on Guns Could Set Back D.C. Voting Rights

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?

Congress will always conduct its little experiments on the District, so the city's belief that it can set its own course on guns is delusional. But it is possible to play politics and make some real progress. And a seat in the House is very real -- a recognition, finally, that a vote is a basic right. It's a way to tell thousands of disillusioned, disenfranchised D.C. children that they really are citizens of the United States.

What to do? Push a compromise. Tell Congress that the city will drop its requirement that prospective gun owners take training courses; rethink the D.C. law's registration provisions.

"You can't win the NRA over," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, which lobbies for voting rights. "They want it all, and they want it now. But you can give pro-gun Democrats a way to say yes."

Congress remains the city's overlord, but there are often ways for the mayor and council to massage the master. Right now, for example, the city can work with Democrats on the Hill to get rid of the school vouchers program that a Republican-controlled Congress imposed in 2004. The voucher scheme, despite a touching new PR campaign that uses emotional pleas by schoolchildren to manipulate public opinion, is nothing but an attempt to smash the walls separating church from state; the overwhelming majority of voucher recipients attend Catholic schools.

But as the church itself is proving this year at seven D.C. schools, there is an alternative that does right by students, parents and the Constitution: Convert financially strapped Catholic schools into public charter schools. By removing the religious affiliation and keeping the strong academics and emphasis on values, Catholic educators have found a way to provide a valued service without abusing taxpayers.

D.C. politicians are preparing residents for another heartbreaking loss on voting rights. But being purists won't produce anything except a sense of moral superiority. Give a little on guns, use charter schools as a compromise on vouchers -- the results could be real, lasting change.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.

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