The D.C. Council, in an effort to help Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon win emergency congressional aid, voted yesterday to repeal a gun-liability bill that it touted last year as a powerful tool to curb violence in the city.
The council approved the repeal on a voice vote without debate. The bill, which was unique in the country and had been praised by gun-control advocates, would have allowed shooting victims or their families to sue assault-weapon merchants.
When council members approved the bill on an 8 to 3 vote in December, they said it would deter gun sales, thereby reducing killings. But yesterday, nine members decided it should be sacrificed for another goal: getting $100 million from Congress to help erase the city's budget deficit this year.
"We're really disappointed; we thought they would at least debate this," said Jeff Mutchnik, legislative director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national group. "It just seems like they've given up on it."
Dixon told the council last month that the bill, which encountered strong opposition in Congress, was hurting the city's chances for that money. A spokesman for Dixon said the mayor was "very pleased" with the repeal, but said she would not speculate on how it would improve relations with Congress.
"Anything that means we're going to get more resources for the city, I'm for it," said council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5), who supported the bill last year. "I don't want to send any negative things up to the Hill that could wind up hurting our whole city."
Council member John Ray (D-At Large), who opposed the bill last year, said another reason that the council was willing to repeal it was because there were growing doubts about its effectiveness. "I believe some members felt there was no need to keep it on the playing field when the result of it was going to be zero," he said.
But several council members said they were reluctant to support the repeal in the face of congressional pressure, saying such a step could undermine home rule. Some members also complained that they were scuttling the bill without any guarantee of getting financial help from Congress.
"We might not get a dime out of this," said council member Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), who abstained from voting. "We're selling this legislation on a hook and a promise."
Smith said the council opted not to debate the repeal because "sometimes you get yourself in embarrassing situations you don't want to talk about."
Council members Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3) and William Lightfoot (I-At Large) also abstained. Four council members switched their votes to help repeal the bill: Thomas, Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large), Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Council Chairman John A. Wilson (D), who abstained in the December vote.
Yesterday's repeal is the latest -- but possibly not the last -- chapter in the council debate over holding gun manufacturers and dealers liable for shootings or deaths in the District. Ray recently introduced a bill that would hold anyone who sells a gun illegally liable for injuries or deaths the weapon causes. The gun-liability bill the council repealed yesterday included legal and illegal sales.
The council first gave preliminary approval to that bill in 1989, then withdrew it to avoid confrontation with Congress, which has final authority over D.C. legislation and was considering other sensitive issues in the District at the time.
Former council chairman David A. Clarke revived the bill in December, quickly won support for it, and left office describing the measure as one of his greatest accomplishments in 16 years on the council.
The council banned gun sales in the District in 1976, but D.C. police officials have said that most of the guns seized after shootings in the last few years have been traced to merchants in Maryland and Virginia.
Last month, Rep. Thomas Bliley (Va.), the ranking Republican on the House District Committee, introduced a resolution calling the gun-liability bill unconstitutional and urging Congress to overturn it. Fifteen other members, including four Democrats, co-sponsored the resolution. The National Rifle Association also had vowed to fight the bill.
In the last week, Clarke and several local ministers and gun-control groups campaigned vigorously against the repeal, but their efforts failed.