Paul Duggan and Mary Beth Sheridan
The D.C. Council voted today to further ease gun-ownership restrictions in the city in light of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling, while the U.S. House of Representatives began debating a more dramatic measure that would limit the District's power to regulate firearms.
On the most significant day of legislative activity since the Supreme Court struck down the city's 32-year-old handgun ban in a landmark Second Amendment decision June 26, the council unanimously passed emergency legislation to end safe-storage requirements for firearms and to permit ownership of semiautomatic pistols. The measure requires the signature of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who supports it, and then would take effect immediately.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the House moved closer to voting on an amendment that would scrap nearly all locally imposed gun-control rules in the District -- including the city's new handgun registration process -- and would limit D.C. officials from enacting any future measure that goes beyond the firearms restrictions in federal law.
During debate today, some House members blasted supporters of the D.C. gun bill for trying to impose restrictions on the city even as officials were passing new firearms legislation.
"D.C. does not need a second mayor, and does not need a second city council, although there are members here today who seem intent on being both," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.).
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) announced during the debate that the council had passed the new emergency legislation. She denounced the congressional measure, saying: "You are threatening the safety of the entire federal presence, every dignitary and every federal employee here."
Supporters of the measure said they didn't trust the D.C. Council's actions.
"I remain concerned about what some authors of the so-called emergency legislation . . . may try to pass in order to continue to drag their feet and continue to deny D.C. residents their constitutional right to protect themselves," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.).
In a statement, the White House expressed support for the sweeping gun legislation, which is expected to come to the floor this evening in the form of an amendment by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.).
"It would immediately advance Second Amendment principles by directly protecting the individual right of law-abiding District residents to keep and bear commonly used firearms not only to protect themselves and their families but also to protect their homes and property," the White House said in a statement.
Opponents of the measure have expressed concern that the House bill would allow D.C. residents to walk the streets carrying semi-automatic rifles. But the language presented today included several changes to specifically ban that. The measure would, however, allow residents to keep semi-automatic rifles at home, which is not permitted under the D.C. legislation.
The issue of how to regulate firearms in the nation's capital has been the focus of intense and often tortuous debate over the past two months, since the high court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to own guns. The court also said that local governments could impose reasonable restrictions.
Although the District soon set up a registration process for revolvers, the city continued to ban most magazine-loaded semiautomatic pistols and required that handguns be kept unloaded in homes and either disassembled or fitted with trigger locks when not being used in self-defense.
Supporters of the Supreme Court decision have complained that the District's restrictions violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the ruling. That prompted some House members to push for legislation to change the city's gun control rules.
While the House debated that proposal, the council voted without debate to allow ownership of semiautomatics and to permit handgun owners to keep their weapons loaded and unlocked in their homes. In their own remarks about the issue today, council members said the city is capable of drafting its own regulations and urged Congress to back off.
"I implore the Congress to give this body, this mayor and this city an opportunity to find a solution," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "There's every reason to believe we're moving in a direction of a responsible solution."
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) echoed Gray. "I plead with the Congress to let us do our job," she said. "You do not interfere anywhere [else] in the country, you should not interfere here. . . . Leave us alone and let us do our job. We are perfectly capable of doing it."
The emergency bill passed today, if signed by Fenty, will remain in effect for limited time while the council continues working on a permanent gun control law that probably would include the changes made today.