D.C. City Councilman John Ray (D-at Large) yesterday announced a referendum drive for city voters to approve mandatory sentences for people convicted of using firearms in violent crimes or of distributing illicit drugs.

Ray said he is taking the issue to the voters because he has failed in his efforts to get the City Council to approve mandatory sentences.

"I'm not in this because this is something the citizens want, but because I believe it is right," said Ray, flanked by former D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson at a press conference. Jefferson frequently has called for mandatory sentences.

Ray's proposed ballot initiative would require a manadatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime and anyone convicted of manufacturing or distributing drugs when it is the person's first conviction. Second offenders would receive a minimum sentence of 10 years.

Under the proposed initiative, mandatory sentences would apply to dealers and not to addicts selling drugs to support thier habit. "We are not after addicts," Ray said.

Ray said he will file the proposed initiative on Monday with the city's Board of elections and Ethics. If the board approves the wording of the measure, Ray and a citizens committee would then have to collect more than 14,000 signatures to get the referendum placed on the ballot.

Jim Rice, a Ray assistant, said it is unlikely that enough signatures could be collected in time for the initiative to appear on the ballot this November, but it should be ready for next year.

Ray said he plans to raise funds for television and radio advertisements to promote the initiative and to take his case to community groups, churches and businesses over the next few weeks.

The issue of mandatory sentences has been a tricky political football in the City Council for several months. It has special political significance for Ray, who is interested in running for mayor and would like to build a base of support among Washington's old-line balck middle class -- a group that is likely to support such a measure.

Ray failed to get the council to approve a mandatory sentence provision when it passed a law last spring to stiffen penalties for convicted drug dealers.

Mandatory sentencing is opposed by U.S. Attorney Charles F.C. Ruff, D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith Rogers and the American Civil Liberties Union. They maintain that it would limit prosecutors' plea-bargaining ability, overcrowd jails and fail to deter crime.

Jefferson's successor, D.C. Police Chief Maurice Turner, favors mandatory sentencing.