By Michael E. Ruane and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Deal or no deal?
A vote in Congress or gun control.
Will Washingtonians support a voting rights bill in Congress that would limit city gun regulations, as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty thinks? Or would they rather give up on a vote in the House if the price is watered-down gun laws?
The debate has divided residents and politicians, and it appears to present the District with a game show-style choice: Take the deal that would give the District a vote in Congress but weaken its gun laws, or lose the long-sought vote and keep the gun restrictions.
Deal, said Philip Pannell, a veteran community activist and voting rights advocate from Southeast.
"I don't think the perfect should be the enemy of the good," he said. "If it comes to a situation where we cannot get a voting rights bill that does not have the gun amendment in it, I don't think that the people of D.C. should fall on their sword on that one.
"Right now," Pannell said, "the important piece is to get the vote."
No deal, said Ron Moten, co-founder of the anti-violence group Peaceoholics, who opposes a gun amendment. "Once you compromise your integrity for anything, then you already lost the battle," he said. "If you really in your heart believe that this is not right, then why would you compromise?"
As the debate continued yesterday, there were hints that voting rights advocates are concluding that some kind of compromise on gun laws will be necessary for the vote measure to pass.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that his organization and others have tried to persuade lawmakers to allow the voting rights bill to pass without any gun amendment.
The support for that "is uncertain, notwithstanding our efforts," he said. He said that although it is offensive that Congress is interfering in the city's ability to set its gun laws, the issue should not stop passage of a voting rights bill.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, said his members had visited 80 House offices trying to twist arms. The result was "inconclusive," he said.
"So I think now is the time to look at alternative approaches to moving the bill through," he said.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a strong supporter of the D.C. vote measure, has been coordinating strategy in the chamber. His spokeswoman, Stephanie Lundberg, said he hopes to take it to the floor before the Easter break that begins April 4. "We're looking for the best option to move the bill forward," she said, declining to elaborate.
The gun amendment would repeal many of the District's gun control laws -- including the registration of firearms -- and sharply limit its ability to impose new ones.
People close to the talks said that possible compromises include taking the gun amendment off the D.C. vote bill and attaching it to another piece of legislation or making it a standalone bill. Under those options, the gun language could still pass, but it could also be blocked in the Senate or vetoed by President Obama.
Another compromise could be diluting the gun amendment, they said.
Analysts said that the District has little room for maneuvering because gun rights are so popular in Congress. Last fall, the House passed a bill 266 to 152 to remove many of the city's gun restrictions. It died in the Senate.
Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the House has even more Democrats from pro-gun parts of the country than last fall.
"These are people who ran and won in Republican districts. So it would be a tough one for them to swallow, going against the NRA," he said.
Opponents of the D.C. vote measure have used the gun issue in the past to try to derail the bill, knowing they could attract pro-gun Democrats to their side.
The voting rights legislation would give the mostly Democratic District a seat in the House and add a seat for majority-Republican Utah. It was pulled from the House calendar two weeks ago by Hoyer, who said he feared it would be amended with a gun measure. The Senate has approved a similar D.C. vote bill with an amendment that would overturn the city's gun control laws.
Such an arrangement does not dismay all city residents.
Valencia Mohammed, director of Mothers of Unsolved Murders, a D.C. advocacy group for mothers of homicide victims, said she would welcome the deal, although she has lost two sons to gun violence in the city.
"This is one of the inalienable rights that I wanted," she said. "I want my vote to be counted. I want representation in Congress. And I also want the right to bear arms.
"I'm just looking at the history of my ancestors and what they went through and how they were shot and killed, tarred and feathered and burned to death," she said. "Guns was one of those things that they could not have and a tool for other people that kept them enslaved. I'm saying no more of that. I want to enjoy all of those rights that they were denied. . . . It's time."
But City Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she would say no to the deal.
"It's unacceptable to link our fundamental right to vote with the condition that we sacrifice public safety," she said yesterday. "I . . . don't agree that we should kneel down to the NRA and the gun lobby.
"First of all, we've been denied this fundamental right," she said. "We're entitled to it by any measure of fair and just democracy. And then to say the only way you can get this -- this little crumb that they're throwing at us -- is to give up on our laws that we've passed in the interest of protecting the public.
"I hope the whole nation is watching this, to see how Congress uses us as a plaything."
Deal? Former City Council member Sandy Allen, whose family has been wracked by gun violence, said that making such a decision would be unimaginable.
"The gun law should just be totally removed from our voting rights," she said. "To attach that to a liberty that should be ours naturally . . . is unfair to the residents of the District of Columbia."
But having to decide between the two?
"I would be at a total loss to think that I'd have to choose," she said.
Kelvin Robinson, a Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner, said he was also torn. "It's not a choice that District residents should have to face," he said. "This isn't new. This is a chronic problem that seems to befall the District."
"We want -- we need -- to have voting rights," he said. "We've gone too long without them. . . . We've got to strengthen our position in this democracy in a way that would allow us then to really have self-determination."
E. Gail Anderson Holness, president of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, agreed.
"I think as a last resort we should take that compromise," she said. "Politics is the art of compromise. . . . If that is the compromise and if that is the last resort, we should move forward. It will afford D.C. residents the fundamental right to participate in federal government."