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House Repeals Washington's Weapons Law

Tough controls would end under a move meant to force Democrats into a choice. Lawmaker calls it 'election-year politics.'

September 30, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just weeks after allowing the federal assault weapons ban to expire, the House on Wednesday voted to repeal the District of Columbia's tough 28-year-old gun control law -- thrusting the emotional issue into the election- year spotlight once again.

The Republican leadership does not expect the bill to reach the president's desk this year; instead, the vote was intended to force Democrats into making an uncomfortable choice.

"It's important to put people on the record," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

A number of Democrats in tight races in rural Southern and Western districts voted for the measure. A National Rifle Assn. spokesman said the vote would be used to help determine the 4-million-member group's endorsements in congressional races.

"This is election-year politics," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), who voted against the measure.

The D.C. Personal Protection Act, approved 250 to 171, would repeal one of the nation's toughest gun control laws: a 1976 measure that prohibited handguns in the nation's capital unless they were owned before Sept. 24, 1976. Current law requires owners to register their weapons, including rifles and shotguns, with the Police Department and mandates that guns kept at home be unloaded or equipped with trigger locks.

The NRA's congressional allies fear the bill could become a vehicle in the Senate for gun control advocates to try to revive the nationwide assault weapons ban. An NRA-backed bill to shield gun makers and sellers from violence-related lawsuits died in the Senate earlier this year after gun control amendments were attached to it.

Democrats have shied away from the issue, believing that their 2000 presidential candidate, Al Gore, lost support in rural states because he advocated gun control.

Critics of Wednesday's House action questioned repealing the law at a time when Washington is considered a top terrorist target and is still recovering psychologically from the sniper spree that left 10 people dead and terrorized the area in 2002.

"This is sheer lunacy," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who serves as the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate to Congress. She called the bill a "new low for this body."

"We are spending millions of dollars to protect the nation's capital from another terrorist attack, yet we're passing legislation that would invite terrorists to bring assault weapons into the heart of the nation's capital," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). Pointing to a photo of a semiautomatic rifle, Waxman said that if the House measure became law, "somebody can have this assault weapon and stick it out a window on Pennsylvania Avenue."

The measure was opposed by Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and the district's police chief. And in a letter to lawmakers, a number of business groups said that repealing the gun law was "the last thing" Washington needed after working hard to recover from Sept. 11, which devastated the city's tourism industry. Critics also accused Congress of meddling in local affairs.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), argued that it would restore "2nd Amendment rights" to Washington residents and allow law-abiding citizens to own guns to defend themselves in their homes. Proponents of the measure argued that the law had failed to stem gun violence.

"When you control guns, the bad guys have plenty and the good guys can't defend themselves," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

Washington had 248 homicides last year, down from 482 in 1991. This year, the city has had 149 killings, about a 24% decline from the same period a year earlier.

Fifty-two Democrats -- many from rural Southern and Western districts -- joined 198 Republicans in voting for the measure. Twenty-two Republicans, including moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, joined 148 Democrats and one independent in voting against it.

All California Republicans voted for the measure except Rep. Mary Bono of Palm Springs, who opposed it. Reps. Joe Baca of San Bernardino and Dennis A. Cardoza of Atwater were the only California Democrats to support the bill.

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