Gun law proposal snarls local support for D.C. voting rights

By Tim Craig and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

With the U.S. House of Representatives scheduled to vote as early as Wednesday, opposition is building locally to a proposal that would grant the District its first voting member in Congress but would repeal most of the city's gun-control laws.

The national and local branches of the League of Women Voters and D.C. For Democracy, which bills itself as the city's largest progressive organization, said Monday they will not support the voting rights bill because it would strip the city of its ability to set its own gun laws. Concerns over the gun amendment have also spurred several D.C. Council members to urge Congress not to vote on the measure, but supporters maintain that a broad coalition is ready to accept the amendment if it means voting rights.

Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, and Billie Day, president of the League's D.C. chapter, said in a joint statement that they reached their decision not to support the measure "reluctantly and sadly, but firmly" because of concerns over the gun amendment.

"The destruction of D.C.'s gun-safety laws is too high of a price to pay for the passage of the D.C. Voting Rights Act," the statement read. "Asking citizens to sacrifice their safety in order to have representation in Congress is unacceptable."

The Leagues' positions underscore the challenges facing Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's non-voting House member, and Democratic congressional leaders as they take up the bill, which would also give Republican-leaning Utah another congressional seat.

Norton's approach is backed by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who has argued that the District can work on getting the gun language changed after it secures a vote in Congress. That strategy is also supported by such national and local groups as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO.

But there are growing indications that some city leaders remain troubled by Norton's strategy. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said he will not support the initiative unless substantive changes are made to the gun amendment.

A similar bill cleared the Senate last year, but only after the National Rifle Association won passage of the gun amendment. Norton was among those fiercely opposed to moving forward with the Senate bill last year. But Norton's thinking shifted, she said last week, when it became clear that she would not get a vote on a stand-alone voting rights bill.

Norton, who said congressional leaders are still trying to negotiate with the NRA, argues that prospects for passage could diminish if the Democratic majority narrows after this year's midterm elections and if the political compromise with Utah is no longer relevant with the completion of the 2010 Census.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, said that though there is some disagreement among coalition members, the majority support Norton's push to move forward this week. "The gun amendment is the best example of why we need a vote and the power in Congress to prevent this type of thing from happening," Zherka said.

A majority of D.C. Council members appears to be digging in for a fight. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has started an online petition to collect signatures asking Congress not to approve a voting rights bill if it includes the gun language. Cheh plans to deliver the petition to Capitol Hill before the House vote.

"The gun amendment displays a complete contempt for the people of the District of Columbia," she said. "It's a disgusting deal and should be rejected."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company