A rural Virginia congressman has proposed a one-sentence amendment to pending gun control legislation in the House that would repeal the District's ban on handgun ownership, gutting the city's 23-year-old gun laws.
The measure, scheduled for a vote this afternoon, was slipped without notice to District officials into a stack of other amendments approved Tuesday night by the House Rules Committee for consideration in the debate on national gun control legislation.
Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a maverick conservative Democrat first elected to Congress in 1996, said he introduced the amendment because he believes the District's prohibition on handgun ownership contradicts the Constitution's right to bear arms.
"I believe in the Second Amendment. The Constitution stands above home government," said Goode, whose tobacco and textile district is one of Virginia's most conservative. "If you can't have a weapon to protect yourself, what does the Second Amendment mean?"
District officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, condemned Goode's amendment yesterday as one of the worst assaults ever on home rule and warned that approval of the measure would aggravate gun violence in a crime-besieged city.
"As outrageous as our crime rate has been, who can doubt that it would be far worse if guns were freely available here?" said Norton, who asked Goode to withdraw his proposal. "The Goode amendment would convert a compact city full of crime into open territory for guns as if this were the far West, where hunting is fair game."
Ramsey said throwing out the District's 1976 gun act could reverse three years of dramatically falling crime rates.
"We don't need more guns," the police chief said. "It's going to jeopardize the lives and safety not only of residents of the District but my police officers every time they make a street stop, every time they make a traffic stop."
The amendment drags the District into the contentious debate over gun control legislation, raising the prospect that lawmakers could crack down on gun shows across the country while wiping out a ban on handgun sales and ownership in the nation's capital.
But Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House GOP campaign committee and the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District, said the amendment faces a strong challenge, given the sensitivity of suburban lawmakers to the concerns of gun control proponents.
"This is not only an intrusion on home rule; I think it's bad public policy," Davis said. "I don't think it will have the votes to pass."
The District made possession of handguns illegal after Sept. 24, 1976, granting exemptions to police officers, security guards, retired law enforcement agents and residents who already owned legally registered guns. The city made possession of an illegal weapon a felony in June 1994.
Although it is still legal to own rifles and shotguns in the District, the city has some of the most restrictive gun limits in the nation. These limits, combined with a drug-fueled explosion of violent crime in the 1980s, have put it at the center of an ongoing debate between gun control proponents and gun rights groups over the effectiveness of such laws.
Since 1995, 1,100, or 88 percent, of D.C. homicides have been gun-related, Ramsey said. Also, about 8,700 robberies since 1995 have been committed with firearms. Though both homicide and robbery rates plummeted recently to 25-year lows, they are still high compared with those in cities with a similar number of residents.
There are 99,000 legally registered handguns, shotguns and rifles in the District, according to police, who in 1998 recovered 2,368 illegal weapons -- one every four hours.
D.C. officials yesterday acknowledged the problem with continued gun availability but said easing access to handguns would increase violent crime.
"The more people who carry guns, the more innocent victims who will be hurt," said D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). "Allow us to make the determination of what is best for our citizens."
Goode's response: "I'd say the violent people already got the handguns."
Goode, who is not a member of the National Rifle Association but owns a rifle, said a vote against his amendment could be seen as a vote to ban gun ownership, which could be political suicide in some members' districts.
An amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) would allow District residents older than 18 to carry an unloaded weapon for a "lawful transaction," such as a gun sale.
Norton said it was ironic that a Virginia lawmaker has introduced a measure to throw out the District's handgun ban. About 23 percent of the guns used in D.C. crimes are purchased in Virginia, while 20 percent are purchased in Maryland.
"Virginia," she said, "is more responsible than any other state for the carnage in this city."
CAPTION: Williams, Norton, Cropp and Ramsey confer before speaking against Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr.'s proposal at a news conference.