Two high-profile Republicans in Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), have introduced legislation that would undo the District’s gun laws, which are among the strictest in the nation.
If embraced by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, the legislation could force a Second Amendment showdown with President Obama just two years after he failed an attempt to win stricter gun control laws nationwide.
For the District, the legislation could amount to the most serious challenge to local governance in years. For three decades, the District’s liberal Democratic leadership prohibited any gun ownership in the city. The Supreme Court struck down that law in 2008.
Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said the legislation is necessary to protect a fundamental right that all Americans should have — including residents of the nation’s capital.
“In order to achieve the American Dream, people need to be able to live in safe communities and be able to protect themselves, their families and their properties from danger,” Rubio said. “For years, the District of Columbia has infringed on its residents’ Second Amendment rights and rendered them vulnerable to criminals who could care less what the gun laws are.”
Jordan, the Ohio representative, said the bill would make the District a safer place for law-abiding citizens and “restore the original intent of the Second Amendment to our nation’s capital.”
The District’s unique status as a federal district that Congress oversees has long made it a battleground for social policy fights on Capitol Hill. Those battles have flared especially when Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress, as they do now. Democrats have regularly accused Republicans of using their oversight of the city to impose their ideological will — and score points with their own constituents back home.
“It should shock no one that Sen. Rubio, who is widely expected to soon announce a run for president, would try to raise his national profile and conservative bona fides,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress. “But they should be shocked to hear that he would try to use our local jurisdiction and laws to violate his own support for the principle of local control. Such bullying is not very presidential.”
Rubio isn’t the only national Republican to draw accusations of imposing presidential politics on the District. The legislation follows a move last week by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the days before he announced his run for the presidency to undo two local D.C. laws pertaining to abortion, birth control and gay rights.
“With all of this attention, you would think D.C. was going to have its primary with Iowa and New Hampshire next year,” said Michael Czin, communications director for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Czin declined to speculate on whether the law could affect public safety, saying he would not deal in the hypothetical of the proposed law passing Congress.
“We would urge everyone in Congress, regardless of their political views, to respect the District’s legislative process,” Czin said.
The proposal also comes at a time when relations between District Democrats and their congressional overseers are already strained by the city’s decision to go forward with implementing a voter-approved initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Conservative House Republicans even threatened jail time for Bowser and warned that more D.C. laws could come under renewed scrutiny.
For some D.C. defenders, that appeared to be what was happening with the measures from Rubio, Jordan and Cruz.
“We knew this was coming. It was just a matter of when,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of D.C. Vote. Perry led a sit-in late last year on Capitol Hill after Republicans began maneuvering to upend the District’s voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana.
“The hypocrisy,” said Perry. “This is a small number of politicians willing to sacrifice their small-government principles to appease interest groups.”
The District has long been reviled by gun rights organizations for its stringent regulations that limit firearm purchases. Last year, gun rights groups won a partial victory when a federal judge struck down the city’s ban on allowing residents and visitors to carry concealed weapons in the city. Still, the District’s police department has approved only a couple of dozen carry permits.
Under the legislation introduced by Rubio and Jordan, that would change dramatically. District gun laws would be repealed and replaced with much looser federal laws, including a “shall issue” provision requiring the District to issue a concealed-carry permit to any resident or visitor who meets the most basic criteria.
The D.C. Council and mayor would also be stripped of their ability to pass future restrictions on gun control. And D.C. residents would be allowed to purchase guns in neighboring states including Virginia, where purchasing requirements are among the nation’s most lenient.
The legislation would even allow private corporations and public agencies in the nation’s capital to determine whether they want to allow firearms to be carried inside secure public and private buildings.
The District was granted limited home rule by Congress in the 1970s. During a subsequent period of fiscal mismanagement under then-Mayor Marion Barry (D), Congress imposed strict financial controls.
The District has more residents than Wyoming or Vermont, but has no voting representation in Congress.
In previous terms when Republicans have controlled Congress, the party has blocked the District’s ability to begin needle exchange programs, legalize marijuana for medical purposes and allow for public funding to be used for abortions.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner referred questions about the legislation to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), whose committee might take up the legislation. Chaffetz was traveling and not immediately available for comment.Last year, Chaffetz voted for an unsuccessful amendment to prohibit the city from spending money to enforce gun restrictions.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) blasted Rubio and Jordan for framing the issue as a constitutional one, noting that a federal judge last year upheld the District’s tough gun registration requirements.
“The bill is reckless in terms of national security in the nation’s capital given the constant threats — some of which are carried out against the president and federal officials and the diplomatic corps,” Mendelson said.
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the bill was overdue.
“The District of Columbia has infringed on law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights to self-protection for far too long,” she said. “The NRA and its 5 million members appreciate the efforts of Senator Rubio and Representative Jordan to restore D.C. residents’ fundamental rights to keep and bear arms.”