Image: Handguns.
Thomas Lohnes  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Stripping out a gun provision inserted by the Senate risks raising the wrath of the NRA and losing the support of gun rights Democrats. Leave the gun measure in, and the desertion of gun control Democrats could kill the bill.
updated 3/6/2009 2:37:39 PM ET 2009-03-06T19:37:39

The District of Columbia faces a dilemma: To obtain long-denied vote in Congress, it may have to accept federally imposed gun laws that city officials say would make its dangerous streets more so.

Democrats in the House of Representatives who are trying to move the legislation also are in a quandary. Stripping out a gun provision inserted by the Senate risks raising the wrath of the National Rifle Association and losing the support of gun rights Democrats. Leave the gun measure in, and the desertion of gun control Democrats could kill the bill.

The Senate passed legislation Feb. 26 to give the 600,000 people of the District a voting seat in the House, a right that Congress did not include in an 1801 law that established the parameters of the new capital. To offset the addition of a vote from solidly Democratic Washington, which is how the district is known to most people, Republican-leaning Utah was to be given an extra seat.

The House had passed a similar bill by a comfortable margin in the past session. While opponents promise a constitutional challenge in court if it becomes law, Washington residents, who pay federal taxes and fight in the U.S. military, were closer than they have ever been to getting a real voice in Congress.

The NRA's ongoing standoff
House plans for a vote this week had to be put off. It remains unclear whether the bill will come up next week as Democratic leaders wrestle with a looming threat from the NRA to unleash its forces if the House strips out a Senate amendment that would dismantle the District's restrictions on rapid-fire, semi-automatic weapons and gun registration requirements.

The NRA and its many allies in Congress have been targeting the nation's capital since the Supreme Court, in a historic 5-4 decision last June, affirmed that the Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms applied to private citizens and ruled that the District's 32-year-old ban on handgun possession violated the Constitution.

Video: Justices take on handgun ban case District officials have since rewritten their laws to accommodate the court decision, but the NRA insists that Washington residents still are deprived of their Second Amendment rights.

City officials think otherwise. D.C. Council members who wrote the city gun laws are debating whether to withdraw support for the voting rights bill.

"We are troubled that gaining one right of self-determination may come at the price of another," said Council Chairman Vincent Gray. "I find this move to gut our gun laws through the voting rights bill extremely offensive."

Concerns of city officials
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting delegate to the House, said the Senate-approved provision to allow people who live within blocks of the White House to own military-style sniper weapons "is so reckless and radical that it puts at risk everybody from the president down to the kids that the amendment would allow to possess weapons."

Democrat Norton is leading efforts to find a solution, including dealing with voting rights and guns in separate bills. Last year the House, with the support of 85 Democrats, easily passed a similar D.C. gun bill.

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That bill died in the Senate, and Republican Sen. John Ensign, author of the Senate amendment, said that should not be allowed to happen again. If taken off the voting rights bill, "there's no guarantee it won't get shoved off somewhere in the dark," he said.

The NRA has not lobbied actively on the issue so far, but lawmakers widely fear that it would "score," or include in its ratings of lawmaker support for gun rights issues, votes for any Democratic attempt to bring up a voting rights bill that would exclude the gun amendment.

"We will continue to pursue every legislative and legal option available to address the concerns" of Second Amendment supporters, said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.

Bills boiling together
The NRA feels emboldened after the Supreme Court decision last year, said Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, a gun rights Democrat from northern Michigan who supported the voting rights bill in 2007. If there were an insistence that the gun and voting rights issue be linked, "I and others would probably support that."

"The two issues now have joined. I don't see them coming apart again," said Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who also backed both the D.C. gun bill and the voting rights bill in the past.

On the other side is Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, elected to Congress on a gun control agenda in 1996 after a gunman opened fire on passengers in a Long Island Railroad train, killing her husband and gravely wounding her son. She said she and others would not be able to vote for the voting rights bill if the gun provision were attached.

"It's a sad situation," she said. "We're caught in a box here." The NRA's ties to lawmakers are too strong, she said: "If the NRA says jump, they jump."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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