Conservative House Democrats defied party leaders Wednesday and pushed through legislation that loosens gun laws in the District, saying that the Second Amendment trumps their party's long-standing advocacy of Home Rule in the nation's capital.
"Number one, I'm a pro-gun Democrat," said Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, a member of the Blue Dog conservative Democratic coalition. "Number two, if the government of the District of Columbia can take your guns away from you in our nation's capital, Prescott, Arkansas, and many other small towns across the country could be next."
The National Rifle Association-backed the bill passed by a vote of 266-152, with 85 Democrats joining 181 Republicans in voting yes. Only seven Republicans voted against the measure.
While legislation is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate in the few remaining weeks of this session, it gave Democrats representing conservative districts a pro-gun vote shortly before November's congressional elections.
And by supporting the measure, Democrats facing tough re-election battles helped distance themselves from potential Republican attacks linking them with Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama´s negative comment about small-town residents clinging "to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" out of bitterness over lost jobs.
The House action also demonstrated continuing political clout of the NRA, which supported a key amendment to the bill that repeals the District's semiautomatic handgun ban and overturns D.C. law requiring that firearms kept in the home be locked up and inoperable.
The amendment, sponsored by Mississippi freshman Democrat Travis W. Childers, also allows D.C. residents to purchase guns from federally licensed dealers in Maryland and Virginia and repeals what critics claimed were burdensome registration requirements.
"The District of Columbia's citizens deserve the rights and protections of our country and the Constitution," said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president.
The Supreme Court in June struck down the District's 32-year ban on handguns, saying it was a violation of Second Amendment rights to bear arms. The D.C. Council the following month passed a temporary measure allowing possession of unloaded weapons in homes, but kept its ban on semiautomatic weapons.
On Tuesday, the council went further, voting to allow residents to own most semiautomatic pistols and removing the requirement that weapons be stored unloaded and disassembled or secured with trigger locks.
But conservative Democrats — and the NRA — said the District's updated law didn't go far enough in protecting gun rights, and accused the council defying the Supreme Court ruling. Democrats historically have been staunch advocates of minimal congressional interference in the D.C. government, instead preferring the D.C. Council to govern as much as possible.
Because dozens of Blue Dogs and other House Democrats supported the measure, party leaders said they had no choice but to allow the vote to come to the floor. And if they had tried to stymie a vote, supporters were ready to use a parliamentary procedure to force a vote — a move that would have embarrassed Democratic leaders.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District's nonvoting congressional representative, said Congress was violating the District's Home Rule rights by imposing federal dictates, something it would do to no other U.S. city.
D.C. acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said the bill unfairly restricts the District from protecting residents from safety issues regarding legal and illegal gun ownership. "We would have no control in registration or monitoring in any enforceable way of guns coming in and going through the District," he said. "If this measure goes through the Senate, we're all going to live to regret it. We could be flooded by guns."