The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday to repeal one of the District's gun restrictions, prohibiting the city from spending funds to enforce a law that requires any firearms kept at home to be unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.
The vote of 259 to 161 marked the third time since 1999 that the House has targeted the city's gun laws, which are among the most stringent in the nation. A broader repeal passed the House by a slightly narrower margin last fall but died in the Senate.
Gun rights groups said this measure's chances of clearing the Senate are greater because it is attached to a spending bill that Congress must pass to avoid a government shutdown.
Opponents of the repeal said they still have a good chance of stopping it. The Senate has yet to act on the spending bill, and differences between the House and Senate versions will be resolved by conference committee members who traditionally dislike unrelated amendments, opponents said.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), the measure's sponsor, said it marked "an extremely simple, common-sense . . . first step" toward freer gun ownership, allowing residents to keep loaded, assembled and unlocked weapons in their homes, just as D.C. business owners are allowed to do at workplaces.
Under D.C. law, residents can keep rifles and shotguns in their homes, as well as handguns owned and registered by Feb. 22, 1977, but only if they are stored in a nonoperating condition. The House amendment would prevent the city from enforcing that restriction. Unlike the bill passed by the House last year, it would not alter the city's ban on handguns, Souder said.
"This amendment does not legalize anything that can't be legally owned now. No machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, AK-47s or Uzis," he said. "All it does is . . . [it] gives D.C. citizens the same rights at home that they have at work."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey condemned the House action, calling it a subversion of democracy for 550,000 District residents who are denied a vote in Congress and who have long battled gun-related killings, robberies and assaults common to large cities. Washington area House members also criticized the measure, noting that Chicago and New York have restrictive gun laws but are not singled out by Congress under pressure from interest groups.
D.C. officials said the measure, although narrowly drawn, could have broader impact. Norton, a Georgetown University law professor, said she believed the language could undo the District's limits on gun possession, enabling residents to openly carry rifles and shotguns in public. Ramsey said the measure would take away the ability of police to charge negligent gun owners with gun safety violations, such as when their weapons are fired in accidental shootings involving children.
"It's discouraging when members of Congress who don't represent our city try to shove their laws down our throats," Williams said in a statement. "The entire community in the District is working hard to keep handgun violence down, and this effort led by Republicans in Congress would take us in the wrong direction."
The measure was included in the D.C. budget bill, which is part of a $68 billion federal spending bill to fund transportation projects, housing, the Treasury and other agencies. The House passed the bill last night, 405 to 18.
Norton predicted that D.C. officials "will have a fair chance" to strip out the measure during House-Senate talks.
During the debate on the gun law, Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, proposed his own change to the city budget: forcing members of Congress to draw their pay from D.C. funds and cut their annual salary to that of D.C. Council members, from about $162,000 to $92,500.
"The citizens of the District of Columbia have no vote in this body, and as long as that is the case, we have no right to tell them what their laws are going to be," Obey said, adding that he opposed the city's handgun ban but found opponents' tactics "ridiculous and abusive."
"If the people in this House want to act like your D.C. city councilman, then they can be paid like a D.C. councilman," he said. Obey withdrew his amendment after a procedural challenge.
Except for Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), all Maryland and Northern Virginia lawmakers voted against Souder's amendment. Norton does not have a vote.