IT WAS SOME years ago when D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke began pushing for a local law that would make firearms manufacturers and distributors anywhere in the world liable for any injuries or deaths here involving weapons they market. It was a dud -- not needed, given the laws on firearms already on the books. Besides, its chances for survival in the rest of the world out there -- starting with Capitol Hill -- were subzero. But in his final days as chairman last year, Mr. Clarke managed to win council approval of a bill that would make merchants of certain military-style assault weapons liable. This, too, is a dud -- but the new city leaders know it and for all sorts of good reasons are about to pull it back.
The best reason, of course, is still that the District has plenty of other firearms laws in place that do not have the same national impact. As the gun lobbyists love to point out, these laws, strict as they are, haven't stopped the horrifying increases in murders, woundings or crimes in which guns have been involved.
What they don't say is that these policies haven't a sporting chance in this city until the region around it and, better yet, the United States from coast to coast establish some uniform national protections of the sort desperately sought from Congress by every significant law enforcement group in the country.
But there is yet another compelling reason this year not to risk a congressional veto of a locally enacted bill. The price of going through this unnecessary exercise -- however much we always defend the city's enactment of any local bill, bad or good, without interference by Congress -- is much too high. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon and Council Chairman John A. Wilson know that their top priority is the solvency of the District. Keeping the District from financial collapse cannot be achieved without federal understanding and the federal dollars to which the District should be entitled.
That understanding has been painfully absent in recent years, depending as it does on the reputation of the city government for fiscal responsibility and other manifestations of administrative good sense. Already, Mayor Dixon and Chairman Wilson have won new respect for the city government on both counts -- and they'll need to win the federal dollars to match. According to Chairman Wilson, this is understood by others on the council. "If the mayor asks for a repeal of the legislation," he says, "I think a majority of the council is amenable to it if it's going to help solve our budget problem." Told of this comment, a spokesman for Mayor Dixon says, "If that's a directive to move on a repeal, that's what she intends to do. She will take whatever steps are necessary to resolve this matter." This is pure good sense. When someone like Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), the ranking minority member of the House District Committee, has indicated sympathy for the financial and other needs of this capital city, there's no point in pressing for a bill that directly affects his constituents and that he therefore opposes -- and a bill that isn't needed here anyway.
Those particular assault weapons aren't needed either -- and that's a job for Congress, which should recognize the overwhelming national public sentiment for a ban on such weapons. Congress should recognize as well the same overwhelming public support for the Brady bill, which would provide for a waiting period on purchases of handguns.
The commitment of this city's government to solvency must not be sidetracked for marginal reasons. When there are principles of local government to defend, Mayor Dixon, Chairman Wilson and the council will be expected to take a stand. Right now they are taking another stand -- for the financial stability of the District of Columbia -- and they deserve the support of everyone, downtown and on the Hill, for that endeavor.