Congress Steps In to Write D.C.’s New Gun Legislation

Posted September 9, 2008 at 6:35pm

As Congress returns from the August recess, so does the debate over Washington, D.C., gun laws and, more specifically, who should write them.

There are two bills in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that address the city’s ability to regulate weapons now that the Supreme Court in June lifted a 32-year ban on handguns in the District.

The committee will take up legislation, introduced by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), today that aims to counter a recently introduced measure by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) that would overturn many of the city’s proposed gun regulations.

Childers’ legislation, the Second Amendment Enforcement Act, would loosen many of the provisions put into place by emergency legislation enacted by the D.C. Council in July.

“The bill that I’ve cosponsored is a direct attempt to restore Second Amendment rights, and this is its sole objective,” Childers said in an e-mailed statement. “While it upholds the American right to bear arms, the bill also maintains existing prohibitions on sawed off shotguns, machine guns, and short barreled rifles.”

The bill, which is supported by the National Rifle Association, has four main components: repealing the semiautomatic ban, allowing citizens to keep guns assembled and ready for use in the home, easing registration restrictions and allowing D.C. residents to buy guns in Maryland and Virginia.

The bill “federalizes a local gun law. You couldn’t do that to anybody else, but they’re certainly trying to do it to us,” Norton said.

“They’ve done a lot of outrageous things to the District, but stopping this city in the midst of writing a law is not one that Congress has ever done, especially when the city is already under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.”

Norton’s bill focuses specifically on the effect that lifting the semiautomatic ban would have on police trying to control large events, such as the inaugural parade and July Fourth fireworks. Norton and other Members who oppose Childers’ bill, H.R. 6691, worry that the introduction of long-range weapons into D.C. will endanger government officials and foreign dignitaries.

“The palpable risk that H.R. 6691 poses to the public safety of our residents is deliberately lost on the NRA and the Democratic and Republican sponsors of their bill,” Norton said in a statement.

“But, I doubt that carrying loaded AK47s or .50 caliber sniper assault weapons openly in cars or in person will go down well with federal law enforcement and security officials in this city, where two presidents have been killed with handguns and Presidents Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan were shot and seriously injured with handguns. We live in the much more dangerous 9/11 era today,” Norton said in the release.

Under the emergency legislation currently enacted in the District, guns may be kept in the home, but they must be unloaded and disassembled with a trigger lock in place unless there is a threat of immediate danger.

Eye and written tests are required for gun owners, and ballistics testing on the weapon is a must before obtaining the right to own a handgun.

The stringent guidelines were no surprise. Mayor Adrian Fenty called the Supreme Court decision unfortunate and disappointing, saying “the same way illegal guns move through the black market, legal guns will move through the black market and end up in the hands of criminals.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Members questioned several law enforcement officials, including Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier and Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse, about the effects that Childers’ bill would have on their jobs.

Lanier was quick to say that the emergency laws put into place shortly after the Supreme Court ruling were a work in progress and not yet permanent.

“In my professional opinion, if H.R. 6691 were passed, it would be far more difficult for MPD and federal law enforcement agencies in the District of Columbia to ensure safety and security in the nation’s capital,” she said.

Although the Home Rule Act of 1973 minimized Congress’ role in governing the District, federal lawmakers still review the city’s laws before they are enacted and have the right to make changes.

All D.C. laws must come across the Government Oversight Committee’s desk, and the committee can object to them. The D.C. Council was planning on presenting its final version of the gun regulations to the panel this fall.

“I think 6691 would step in — in a very crude way — and have some potentially grave consequences, I’ll say unintended consequences,” D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D) said.

“Congress should let us go ahead with legislating,” he said. “We are trying to address the issues quickly. The area of gun control is very complicated.”