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March 2, 2009

A Dangerous Gambit

District of Columbia residents have been rightfully excited this year about the prospects of finally gaining voting representation in the U.S. Congress. After the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” passed the House in 2007 and came tantalizing close in the Senate, the stage seemed set for victory with the election of President Barack Obama, who has stated openly he will sign the legislation if it comes to his desk. Bipartisan and vote-neutral, the Act pairs a seat for the traditionally Democratic District with an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah (the next state eligible for a seat based on U.S. Census numbers).

What should have been a day of celebration last Thursday turned into a nightmare for the District, however, when the Senate approved its version of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” S. 160, with an amendment drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Ensign Amendment, sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), would gut the District of Columbia’s new gun laws entirely. D.C.’s firearm registration system would be eliminated, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would be legalized, federal anti-trafficking laws would be rolled back so that District residents could buy guns across state lines in MD and VA (without any oversight by D.C. authorities), and the D.C. Council would be prohibited from enacting any law in the future that might “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms. None of these changes to D.C.’s gun laws were called for in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court.

Speaking of the amendment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, "It's reckless; it's irresponsible; it will lead to more violence." The D.C. Council was equally blunt in its assessment. "The Senate action is of huge concern," said Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the council's Public Safety and Judiciary Committee. "It strips our authority. The irony here is that on one hand they vote to give us voting representation, but on the other hand they strip any local representation in regards to our gun laws."

The amendment passed the Senate on a vote of 62-36 with the support of 22 Democrats. Asked to explain the vote count, Senator Ensign (who appears to be the NRA’s new point man in the Senate with the retirement of Idaho Senator Larry Craig) said, “People are afraid.” Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, concurred with this assessment, noting, "people don't want to vote against the National Rifle Association."

Democrats who voted for the Ensign Amendment noted that they were not pressured by their leadership in the Senate to vote NO (Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid himself was a YES vote). It also appears that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, through their deafening silence on Thursday, signaled to Democrats that they could vote as they wished on the amendment as long as voted YES on S. 160. Delegate Norton failed to even mention the passage of the Ensign Amendment in her press release after the Senate votes, referring only obliquely to “tough anti-home rule battles.” This was in direct contrast to the action of D.C. Council members, who sent a sharply-worded letter to Senators on Thursday describing the amendment as a poison pill.

It would seem that Mayor Fenty and Delegate Norton are banking on the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” gaining approval from the House of Representatives this week without any gun amendments attached. But even though House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has branded the Ensign Amendment "inappropriate and wrong," saying, "I hope it won't be in the final product," that outcome is far from certain. In fact, just this past September, 266 House Members voted to pass H.R. 6842, a bill that was nearly identical to the Ensign Amendment.

And even if the "D.C. House Voting Rights Act" is approved by the House without a gun amendment attached, it still has to go to a House-Senate Conference. The conference could elect to include, or not include, the Ensign Amendment. As one unnamed aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee noted, "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes things that could happen."

Finally, it should be stated that the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” is certain to draw a constitutional challenge in the courts. What would happen if the bill was signed into law with the Ensign Amendment language attached only to have its congressional representation provisions struck down shortly thereafter? At that point, D.C. residents would see their democratic aspirations vanish along with their gun laws.

A single voting representative in the House is not worth the price of increased gun violence in the District. D.C. residents have a basic right to self-determination, and that is what the "D.C. House Voting Rights Act" is supposed to stand for. Should the bill, burdened with the Ensign Amendment, come up for final passage in the House, Mayor Fenty, Delegate Norton and the Democratic leadership must end their risky venture and kill the bill.


  1. The problem with this argument is that there is not a shred of evidene that DC's gun laws actually serve to restrict violence

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. The point of D.C.'s tough gun laws were to deny criminals and other prohibited purchasers access to firearms, and there is abundant evidence that the city's laws have succeeded in this regard.

    In fact, criminals are almost entirely unable to acquire firearms in the District. 2007 ATF trace data indicates that 97% of the city's crime guns come from outside states with far weaker gun laws than the District. It is these weak laws in outside jurisdictions that criminals and firearms traffickers routinely exploit, not the District's. And D.C., of course, has no authority whatsoever over these jurisdictions.

    Senator Ensign's "solution," to weaken D.C.'s laws to a standard BENEATH that of jurisdictions where criminals and traffickers routinely acquire firearms, is certain to increase gun violence in the city and facilitate the work of illegal firearms traffickers who profit from bloodshed. - CSGV

  3. I think the inescapable conclusion here is that the gun industry's agenda is to promote sweeping measures that will promote widespread gun ownership without regard to public safety. This is inexcusably irresponsible.

    Nothing that DC enacted in the gun laws following Heller violated the parameters for reasonable regulation put forth by Scalia's opinion. So now the NRA, et al, not satisfied with the Judicial Branch's interpretation of the Second Amendment continue to try to rewrite the Constitution.

    Inconvenience is not infringement. Sorry NRA but we victims of gun violence are not sympathetic.

    Reasonable restrictions on gun ownership are allowed by the Constitution as interpreted by this court. That really should be the final word.

    Remember, both sides of this issue were unhappy with something in the ruling. Victims and anti-violence activists are unhappy about the individual right ruling, gun activists are unhappy about Scalia's reasonable restrictions. If we can live with the ruling, then so should they. They started the suit. They played with fire. Now they have been burned and they don't like it.

    So, in the spirit of the NRA's maxim, it's time to obey the laws we have and leave DC's public safety regulations alone. The Federal Legislature can't continue to treat DC as their personal jurisdiction to experiment with as they like.

    DC has to allow handgun ownership to private individuals, fine. But DC lawmakers are well within their rights and responaibility to place public protection measures around that ownership. That's their job as local officials. The feds should stay out of it.

  4. senator harry reid is making the same deal with the devil (the nra) that sen tom daschle did when he was up for a tough re-election.

    recall daschle lost. he angered the party faithfuls but gained little traction with nra followers.

    here we go again.


  5. At the crudest level, as Justice Breyer wrote, violent crime in Washington has increased since the ban took effect in 1976. “Indeed,” he continued, “a comparison with 49 other major cities reveals that the district’s homicide rate is actually substantially higher relative to these other cities than it was before the handgun restriction went into place.” Quote from "Gun Laws and Crime: A Complex Relationship"; NY Times article dated June 29, 2008

    Reading the above quote by a Supreme Court Justice (many other credible sources are available), what is the "abundant evidence" that CSGV can offer supporting the claim that Washington DC's gun laws have succeeded? I tend to think that any successes would be more attributable to sound and persistent investigations than to the city's gun laws.

    The ATF trace data shows that the # 1 state providing illegal firearms to DC criminals is Maryland, a state rated # 5 by the Brady Campaign for having the most aggressive gun laws. If proactive restrictions are truly effective, Maryland should be a much lower provider. Also, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics of 2001 (25th anniversary of DC's gun ban), murder rates were as follows:
    - Washington DC - 46.4/100,000 pop.
    - Arlington, VA (across the river from DC) - 2.1/100,000 pop.
    Virginia is a state that is rated 18th by Brady and is supposedly awash with guns and yet their murder rate is so much less. If easy access to guns in the lax surrounding states are the root of DC's problem, why is there such a discrepancy in the statistics? Is it possible that the criminal element in Arlington found easier pickings in a known "unarmed citizen" zone than in one where armed resistance might actually be encountered?

  6. Thanks for your comment, Mike W. You seem to have quoted somewhat selectively from the New York Times article you cited. Justice Breyer did indeed mention the article you describe in his dissent in the D.C. v. Heller case, along with several other studies that were referred to in the amicus briefs in the case (including a New England Journal of Medicine study that found a drop in gun homicides and suicides in the District following the enactment of the city’s 1976 laws). After reviewing all this evidence, Justice Breyer wrote, “The upshot is a set of studies and counterstudies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion.” The Times article also cites several other factors that affect the crime level in a major city, including “demographics, economics and the drug trade.” Justice Breyer, of course, wrote in his Heller dissent that “I can understand how reasonable individuals can disagree about the merits of strict gun control as a crime-control measure, even in a totally urbanized area. But I cannot understand how one can take from the elected branches of government the right to decide whether to insist upon a handgun-free urban populace in a city now facing a serious crime problem and which, in the future, could well face environmental or other emergencies that threaten the breakdown of law and order.”

    As for evidence that the District’s gun laws worked, there is no clearer evidence than data that shows that only 3% of the District’s crime guns come from the city. The goal of strong gun laws is to deny criminals and other prohibited purchasers access to firearms. The District’s gun laws have succeeded totally in this regard. It is a bizarre logic to suggest that the solution to gun violence in the District is to weaken D.C.’s gun laws to a standard beneath that of the outside states that are the source 97% of the city’s guns. That is the equivalent of identifying the weakest link in a chain and replicating it, and the only outcome such a policy would be certain to have is to facilitate the access that criminals and other dangerous individuals have to firearms. Any serious effort at reducing gun violence in the District—and nationally—would look instead at how to strengthen gun laws in states that routinely arm prohibited purchasers.

    As for Maryland, it did indeed rank fifth on the Brady Campaign’s 2008 State Scorecard Rankings, but it was awarded only 53 out of a possible 100 points for its gun laws. In any case, Maryland’s gun laws are certainly not as strong as the District’s. Criminals and traffickers likely obtain firearms in Maryland for two reasons: because it’s a short ride to the District, and because the state’s laws are weak enough for them to do so.

    Regarding comparisons to Virginia, however, Virginia is a far more significant exporter of crime guns to outside states than Maryland. In 2007, Virginia exported 29.3 crime guns to outside states per 100,000 population, compared to 7.9 per 100,000 population for Maryland. And Virginia, of course, is the source of one of out every four crime guns recovered in the District.

    Finally, we find the comparison of Arlington to the District odd. Arlington is a largely suburban community of 200,000 residents. Washington, D.C. is an entirely urban area with a population of over 600,000 residents. D.C’s murder rate is quite similar, actually, to Virginia’s capital, Richmond. In 2007, Richmond had a murder rate of 26.6 per 100,000 population compared to D.C.’s rate of 30.8 per 100,000 population (FBI Uniform Crime Report, 2007). - CSGV