Let D.C. Rule

Posted September 14, 2004 at 3:31pm

We can’t really complain that the House isn’t doing its work, having passed 11 of this fiscal year’s appropriations bills. But waiting for the Senate to act on all those spending measures seems to have left the House with so much time on its hands that it’s turning to mischief — namely, attempting to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun laws and bar D.C. from passing any new ones.

As The Washington Post reported to a rather stunned city on Tuesday, 228 House Members are co-sponsoring a proposal by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) to end D.C.’s virtual ban on private handgun ownership; to remove prohibitions against semiautomatic weapons; to lift registration requirements for ammunitions and other firearms; and to cancel criminal penalties for possessing unregistered firearms.

Even more instrusively, Souder’s bill also would deny the District’s elected officials “authority to enact laws or regulations that discourage or eliminate the private ownership or use of firearms.”

On the merits, there’s a legitimate debate to be had on whether gun laws, in D.C. or anywhere else, actually work to reduce violence. Certainly, interstate borders are porous, which suggests that, short of a national ban, D.C.’s laws are more nuisance than crime-prevention tool.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) asserted that the Souder bill would worsen gun violence in the city; she also pointed out that the 2002 snipers who killed 10 people in the region used an assault rifle in the process. Souder, on the other hand, countered that D.C.’s ban did not stop the city’s homicide rate from climbing 200 percent between 1976 and 2001, a period when the national rate rose by 12 percent.

Rather — and contrary to Souder — this is a home-rule issue. Members of Congress live in D.C., if at all, only part-time. Souder actually lives in Virginia when he’s not back home in Indiana. It’s true that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to govern D.C. as it sees fit. It can overrule what the city government does and even can reshape the city government if it wants to.

However, in recent decades Congress wisely has seen fit to give D.C. a substantial amount of home rule, subject to Congressional oversight and budgeting. It’s true that D.C. voters and elected D.C. officials have often disappointed home-rule advocates by electing and re-electing the likes of former Mayor Marion Barry and running one of the most expensive and least effective school systems in the country.

On the other hand, residents of this city deserve the right, like every other state and locality in the country, to determine their own criminal laws. Public safety, along with health and transportation, are areas of activity that are traditionally the province of city government.

Souder told the Post that “this is a constitutional issue, not a home-rule issue. The fact is, [Congress] didn’t allow the District to have home rule on the selling of slaves, either.” Leaving aside the arrogance of this comment made about a majority-black city, we assume Souder is saying that D.C. is violating the Second Amendment. If that’s so, we suggest that he organize a lawsuit by would-be D.C. gun owners and let the U.S. Supreme Court decide whether he’s right. The one bit of good news is that the time-strapped Senate — a body sometimes known for addressing frivolous issues for political reasons — is not likely to pass the Souder bill.