D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday rebuked members of Congress seeking to repeal the city's handgun ban, calling the effort an insult to democracy that would lead to more bloodshed.
Williams (D) told members at a House Government Reform Committee hearing that the D.C. Personal Protection Act offered by Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) "is an indignity to the democratic process" and "a slap in the face to me and to the people who live in this city."
"You have my cooperation. You have my respect. You have my ear," Williams said. "In turn, the citizens of Washington, D.C., do not need disrespect or second-guessing."
The hearing opened another season of political jousting over the District's 29-year-old gun law, unanimously supported by the D.C. Council and other local leaders. The hearing was called by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the panel's chairman, at the request of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).
Souder's bill would end the District's 1976 ban on handguns and semiautomatic weapons, roll back registration requirements for ammunition, and decriminalize possession of unregistered weapons and possession of guns in homes and workplaces.
Supporters say the law restricts the constitutional right to keep and bear arms, has failed to reduce crime and leaves citizens vulnerable to criminals with guns.
"It's insane in my opinion for a law-abiding citizen to not be able to protect themselves in the murder capital of the world, of the United States, by having a weapon in the home to protect themselves," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), citing the District's perennially high homicide rate.
Opponents say crime would be worse without the law, that court challenges have failed to reverse the ban and that any such effort should be debated before the District's elected leaders. The city's 550,000 residents do not have a vote in Congress.
The number of D.C. homicides fell 17 percent last year, dipping to 198 for the first time in 18 years. The figure is 10 more than in 1976.
The bill passed the House, 250 to 171, shortly before the 2004 elections after House GOP leaders pushed it despite opposition from Davis.
Shannon Flaherty, a spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Delay (R-Tex.), said the majority leader "fully supports restoring Second Amendment rights to D.C. residents and is committed to passing that legislation," although the timing has not been decided.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) decided not to bring the matter to the floor last year, fearing that a major battle over gun policy would derail other legislation. This time, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and George Allen (R-Va.) have signed up 31 co-sponsors.
Yesterday, both sides in the debate raised familiar arguments, citing divergent statistics and dueling emotional accounts from parents of children killed by gunfire and from employers of unarmed victims. Gun rights groups cited testimony of John R. Lott, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who said the District's murder rate is 30 percent higher than before the ban.
Burton cited the experience of a secretary who was stabbed by an intruder in her Capitol Hill apartment, as well as that of congressional members and staffers "who have been mugged, been beaten up and gun-whipped . . . and robbed on the streets of Washington."
Ramsey cited a nationwide surge in killings driven by crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Addressing Burton, he said his officers recovered 17 guns last weekend alone, including a military-style AK-47 rifle from a 15-year-old boy.
"I don't know how many folks you've confronted, sir, in reality at night with a gun on them who were intent on doing harm, but my people have to do it every single day," Ramsey said. "Adding more guns into the mix is not a good thing. It's going to get one of them killed, and I'd hate to see that."