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D.C. voting rights? Not this deal

Sunday, April 18, 2010; A16

THE HOUSE of Representatives is set this week to take a historic vote that would give residents of the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress. It is a cause that we have long advocated; the disenfranchisement of Americans who pay their taxes and defend their country is an abomination. Sadly, however, the measure comes with an unacceptable poison pill: a surrender of the District's ability to enact its own gun laws.

House Democratic leaders plan to bring to the floor as early as Wednesday a bill to give the District a voting member in the House. Similar legislation passed a year ago in the Senate, but an odious amendment was attached that gutted D.C. gun control laws, stalling the momentum for voting rights. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's non-voting House member, said that she reluctantly concluded over these many months that there was no way to scrub the gun language from the bill. Political realities -- the gun lobby's clout, Democrats' pessimism about the fall election, declining incentive for an arrangement that gives a companion seat to Utah -- are cited to buttress the argument that this is the best, perhaps last, chance for voting rights.

We have the utmost respect for Ms. Norton; she has worked valiantly over the years to protect the city's gun laws from assaults from the National Rifle Association, so we know how difficult this decision was for her. But, to borrow her own words from March of last year when she decided to yank the bill in hopes of erasing the gun provision: "There is no choice between a vote for American citizens and a completely unrelated and reckless gun bill . . . . That is an absurd exchange that no one would accept."

Ensuring public safety is the paramount job of local government. The bill, if it follows provisions approved by the Senate, would remove the District's ban on military-style weapons, repeal the city's firearm registration system, allow teenagers to possess semiautomatic assault rifles and undermine federal anti-gun trafficking laws. In a final insult, it would prohibit local officials from passing any law that could "discourage" gun possession. This is not -- as its disgraced and morally craven author, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), claims -- about restoring Second Amendment rights to the District; the Supreme Court's Heller decision took care of that. This is about undermining a community's reasonable authority, upheld in Heller, to regulate firearms.

Republicans alone are not to blame. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) enabled -- indeed, voted for -- this dangerous gun measure. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) couldn't find a way or muster the will to get their members in line. President Obama had the gall Friday to issue a lame statement urging support for voting rights, after exerting no influence whatsoever to help the District avoid this appalling choice.

There is a risk of passing up this opportunity for voting rights only to see the NRA employ another legislative device to gut D.C. gun laws. Conversely, it's possible that Congress could approve the measure, only to have the courts strike down the voting representation while the gun provisions survive. Ultimately, those unknowables have to be set aside and the stark choice faced. Never in our wildest imagination could we have thought that we would oppose a vote to correct the historic injustice inflicted on the people of the District of Columbia. But sometimes compromise demands too high a price. This is such a time.

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