Upholding Gun Rights in D.C.

By John Ensign
Friday, March 13, 2009

"I believe in the Second Amendment, I believe in the people's lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away."

-- Barack Obama,

September 2008

The recent Senate vote to ensure that D.C. residents can purchase and own firearms without unreasonable restrictions and the House's subsequent delay of legislation to give the District a voting representative -- the result of pressure from centrist Democrats to include this amendment -- were crucial victories for all Americans.

A sizable majority of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that D.C. residents' constitutional rights were being violated by the city government. Democratic leaders in the House know that a strong majority in their own chamber, a majority composed of Republicans and pro-gun, moderate Democrats, reflects the overwhelming sentiment in our nation that unreasonable gun control measures are ineffective at combating crime and infringe on residents' rights. This strong sentiment led me to sponsor the amendment, and it is why I believe House Democrats need to allow a vote.

The Supreme Court's decision last summer to strike down the District's unconstitutional ban on handguns affirmed what many of us already knew -- that the Framers guaranteed all Americans an individual right to bear arms. After that decision, the D.C. government repeatedly demonstrated that it intended to do as much as possible to defy the ruling. For example, the District first claimed that city residents could exercise their constitutional right to self-defense, but only as long as their firearms were kept unloaded and disabled until the moment they confronted an attacker. Subsequent city actions have not been much better.

The District imposed a number of restrictions, including burdensome registration processes and reporting requirements. It required parental consent for legal adults old enough to enlist in the military and carry weapons. The city also banned many firearms, including some handguns, which the justices noted are effective for self-defense. All of this serves only to frustrate and discourage D.C. residents from exercising their legal rights to bear arms.

If strict gun control worked, then the District -- which had long been home to the nation's most restrictive gun control measures -- would be the safest place in the country. But gun violence in the city was consistently among the highest in the nation throughout the 30 years that the city banned handguns. The reason is obvious: A gun control law will not dissuade violent criminals from killing or robbing with guns. Criminals use illegal guns purchased on the black market. Washington's police officers are on the front lines of the battle against violent crime, and they know, as the Fraternal Order of Police recently stated, that the handgun ban was "a miserable failure by any estimation." They also know that many city officials are devoted to the gun ban because it provides political cover for the District's dismal crime numbers.

Contrary to the impression left by some on these pages, my amendment will not turn the District into the Wild West of the East Coast. It would apply federal gun control law to the city. It would prohibit anyone from carrying any firearm in public without a permit; would require residents to submit to an FBI background check when they purchase a firearm; and would apply federal restrictions regarding, among other things, mental health issues, felony convictions, immigration status and age. My amendment upholds the court's ruling while allowing reasonable regulations consistent with the constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Those who seek to mischaracterize this amendment are only spreading fear.

Thankfully, a majority of members of both houses of Congress, like President Obama, believes in the Second Amendment and in the people's right to bear arms. House Democrats are hiding from this measure because they are afraid of the support it will have. Congress cannot stand idly by while city officials thumb their noses at the Supreme Court and the Constitution by depriving law-abiding citizens of their Second Amendment rights.

The writer, a Republican from Nevada, is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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