Bite the Bullet?

Congress and the District don't have to accept a dire choice between voting rights and city gun laws.

Thursday, March 26, 2009; Page A20

THE DEBATE about whether the District should accept the loosening of its gun laws as a condition for voting rights has centered on politics and strategy. Absent has been any real discussion of what it would mean for the nation's capital to go from having the country's most restrictive gun laws to perhaps the least restrictive. If Congress is so intent on taking over local governance, it should -- at the very least -- have the sense to hear from experts about the impact of this radical rewriting of gun laws on public safety and homeland security.

It is scary how swiftly and unthinkingly the measure that would strip the District of much of its ability to regulate guns has advanced. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), was adopted by the Senate in a 62 to 36 vote within a day of being offered. There were no committee hearings to analyze the intricacies or explore possible unintended consequences. There was no testimony from the police agencies charged with protecting the lives of D.C. residents as well as those of tourists and foreign dignitaries, national leaders, and the president and his family.

The reason, as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed out in his Feb. 25 floor speech, is that guns just aren't debated anymore in Washington; few legislators will stick their political necks out to vote for sensible gun control for fear of being targeted back home by the National Rifle Association. That may explain why people who are otherwise sensitive to the interests of the District -- Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb come to mind -- would support this bill. (Spokesmen for Mr. Warner and Mr. Webb defended the votes as evidence of their support of the Second Amendment, but neither would say whether the senators would be willing to inflict the same law on Virginia residents without benefit of any hearing or study.)

Likewise, it is the NRA's threat to retaliate against anyone voting against the measure that has resulted in the unpalatable choice presented to District officials. House Democratic leaders who had hoped for quick action on the voting rights bill know they don't have the support to bring the measure to the floor without the noxious gun amendment. So District residents go without their rightful voice in government as their leaders brood over whether voting rights or gun control matters more.

A better idea is to push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) for a full-scale hearing on the implications of this bill. This would give D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier the opportunity to reiterate the "grave concerns" she expressed last year when a similar bill was being considered. We would like to hear the Department of Homeland Security weigh in on letting the District be the one place in the nation where it is acceptable to cross state lines to buy handguns. We're curious as to what the Secret Service might say about providing easy access to semiautomatic firearms with high-capacity magazines. And if critics (such as we) are wrong about the dangers of this bill, this hearing would afford the opportunity for members of Congress to apply its provisions nationwide so that their constituents, too, can enjoy the same "freedoms" as D.C. residents.

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