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Supporters of D.C. Voting Rights Bill Assail Gun Amendment

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009; B04

Proponents of a D.C. voting rights bill demonstrated on a Capitol Hill street corner yesterday to protest an amendment that would strip the city of its authority to regulate guns.

About 75 demonstrators took part in the Ballots Not Bullets rally on Independence Avenue SW. They dramatized their opposition to the gun amendment by throwing paper guns into a trash bag and marched around as Joe Mann, wearing mirrored sunglasses, beat on four drums hanging from his neck.

It was a sight for congressional aides and tourists who whipped out cameras, especially when the recognizable Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) took her turn on the soapbox. Norton said the legislation is being "shot through by bullets."

"That is not the price we should have to pay for a House vote," she said.

The D.C. House Voting Rights Act would give the heavily Democratic District a voting representative in the U.S. House. The bill would also give Republican-leaning Utah another representative for two years, after which the House seat would be assigned to whatever state deserved it based on population.

But the gun amendment has caused several delays in getting the bill to the House floor for a vote. Late May is now the target for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded in a report this year that the voting rights legislation is unconstitutional, but Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sought a second opinion from the solicitor general's office, where a lawyer said the bill could be defended.

The setbacks have been frustrating, said shadow senator Michael D. Brown, an unpaid elected official whose job is to push for voting rights. He was disappointed by yesterday's turnout.

The vast majority of passersby, some toting bagged lunches or pushing baby strollers, seemed to ignore the commotion as the protesters chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, the gun amendment's got to go." Abby Levine, a program associate for DC Vote, which organized the rally, tried to hand out leaflets. "You can actually have that back," one passerby told her.

Ilir Zherka, DC Vote's executive director, said the group holds the rallies so that proponents of D.C. voting rights can make themselves heard. Zherka, who had a cast on his right foot, sat in a chair and shouted through a bullhorn. He said that he injured a toe while exercising but that he tells people "I've been kicking our opponents."

The effort is gaining some vocal supporters.

Yesterday, Omar Samaha, 25, whose sister Reema was killed in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, attended the rally and said the District should have a vote in Congress and authority over its firearms laws.

"Gun laws should be the people's decision," he said.

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