The D.C. Council, angered by the city's wave of violent crimes, approved a bill yesterday that holds the manufacturers and dealers of a variety of semiautomatic assault weapons liable for any injuries or deaths those guns cause in the District.
The council voted 8 to 3, with two abstentions, to pass the measure, which gun-control advocates called the most far-reaching step any city in the country has taken on the subject. Council members said they hoped their action might eventually help slow the record pace of homicides in the District, but expressed concern that Mayor Marion Barry or Congress might block the bill.
During three hours of debate, the council scrapped a proposal to make the manufacturers and dealers of all handguns liable for shooting injuries or deaths in the District. The amended bill covers only numerous kinds of "assault weapons," including semiautomatic guns such as Uzis and Berettas.
Council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large), who proposed that change, said he believes it will improve the bill's chances of surviving congressional review. "It's time for these merchants of death to pay a price," Lightfoot said, referring to gun manufacturers and dealers. "We can set a very meaningful precedent."
In other decisions yesterday, the council agreed to spend a total of about $200,000 on "transition" costs for Barry, Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon and three departing council Democrats: Chairman David A. Clarke, at-large member Betty Ann Kane and Ward 6 member Nadine P. Winter. The council also approved a resolution urging the city's independent Zoning Commission to overturn its recent decision to require downtown developers to build housing as a component of major commercial developments.
If the council's gun-liability bill survives review by Barry and Congress, it will allow shooting victims or their families to sue gun manufacturers and dealers for damages.
The sale of those weapons has been banned in the District since 1976, when the council last passed a strict gun-control law, but in recent years D.C. police officials have said that most of the guns recovered in shootings were traced to distributors in Maryland and Virginia.
The council gave preliminary approval to a similar gun-liability bill last year, then abruptly shelved it because it did not want to risk confrontation with Congress, which was examining other politically sensitive issues in the District, such as abortion funding. During those council debates, the city's top attorneys expressed doubt that the liability law would withstand court scrutiny.
But yesterday, the council went ahead despite its reservations, saying the city's record 453 homicides so far this year left no time to continue studying the liability issue. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) introduced the bill, and Clarke, who is leaving the council next month, pleaded with members to adopt it.
"By damn, it's time to stand up," Clarke said. "If we can begin to take the profit out of the gun trade, it will have an effect on lives."
Gun-control advocates praised the council's vote yesterday, saying they believed it might encourage other cities to act. Courts throughout the country usually have not held manufacturers or dealers liable for injuries or deaths under exisiting laws.
Michael K. Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he expects the council's bill to survive court challenge, although there is little precedent for it. The Maryland Supreme Court upheld a suit against a manufacturer of inexpensive handguns in 1985, but the state legislature subsequently enacted a measure that effectively overrode the ruling.
Last year, the D.C. Court of Appeals dismissed a suit against a gun manufacturer that was filed by former White House press secretary James Brady and a D.C. police officer, both wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The court said that selling handguns is "not dangerous in and of itself, but rather the result of actions taken by a third party."
"The council's vote is an important step in the right direction," Beard said. "If suits are brought against gun manufacturers, it will close them down. People don't even have to win, they just have to file enough of them. This won't help anything right away, but it eventually will have a dramatic effect."
Opponents of the bill said the council was misdirecting its frustration with the District's epidemic of violence because the bill would not likely sweep city streets of guns any time soon -- if ever.
Carl T. Rowan Jr., a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, derided the council's vote as "good theater, but frivolous legislation."
"This will not have any impact on the violence, and I don't think it stands a chance in court," Rowan said. "The main issue should be that we have a lot of people in this city who have no regard for human life, but the council is again not dealing with that."
Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who joined Kane and council member John Ray (D-At Large) in opposing the bill, said he believed it would be nearly impossible to sue many manufacturers because they are not based in the United States. "Are we going to sue manufacturers in China, South Africa or Belgium?" Crawford asked. "I doubt it . . . . This is just one more blank shot from the hip that will go absolutely nowhere."
The bill's passage seemed in doubt for most of the council's meeting. Clarke's aggressive pursuit of it offended some members, who accused him of sidestepping procedures to get it passed. Ray questioned why Clarke had let the bill sit idle for a year.
Council members Lightfoot and John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who becomes chairman next month, abstained from voting on the issue. But a council majority agreed that the bill eventually could force some gun dealers in the region out of business.
"Maybe they will decide that their best bottom-line interest is not selling guns," said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4).
In another controversial vote yesterday, the council passed emergency legislation providing money to help pay Dixon's expenses as she prepares to take office Jan. 2 and to help the transition of Barry, Clarke, Kane and Winter to private life. After an hour of bickering, the council agreed to give Dixon $105,000, Barry and Clarke $45,000 each, and Kane and Winter $5,000 each.
The council's action did not include providing Barry with transportation or security once he leaves office, but Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. has the discretion to do so.
Some council members, citing city budget problems, proposed lowering the amount, but the measure passed by voice vote. At one point, Winter, a council member since 1974, said it was an "insult" that she was being given only $5,000.
Earlier, the council took a rare step in urging the Zoning Commission to reconsider an October vote to require developers with building projects downtown to construct housing on large parcels there.
In an 11 to 2 vote, the council asked the commission to adopt a proposal that would commit developers to build more housing throughout the city. Developers had argued that forcing them to build housing downtown would restrict other projects.