- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

Kenny Barnes’ son was shot in the face and killed during a 2001 robbery, and Mr. Barnes is upset that some in Congress want to eliminate the District’s strict gun control laws.

He is particularly outraged that lawmakers are going about it by attaching an amendment to a bill that would grant the District a long-awaited vote in Congress.

“This is absolute insanity. How in the world can you justify this?” Mr. Barnes asked. “People are getting murdered in the streets here.”

House Democratic leaders recently scrapped plans to consider the voting rights legislation this summer after acknowledging that their ranks were split on the gun measure and that D.C. leaders were unwilling to compromise. It’s not clear when the bill will be revived, and advocates worry the issue could linger indefinitely.

The measure would negate the District’s tough gun registration requirements and overturn its ban on rapid-fire semiautomatic weapons.

Residents say the amendment puts the District in a bind: Winning the vote means forfeiting the right to set tough firearms policies in view of Washington’s 186 homicides last year, while halting the bill jeopardizes a right they believe is 200 years overdue.

“To go ahead now would be to walk straight into the middle of a fire,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, said he proposed the gun measure because the District has not gone far enough to comply with a Supreme Court, that last year struck down its 32-year-old ban on handguns and affirmed homeowners’ rights to keep guns for self-defense.

The National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, noted that 62 senators, including Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, voted in favor of the amendment.

“D.C. continues to disobey the Supreme Court, and they have no one to blame but themselves,” Mr. Cox said.

D.C. officials insist their rules are in compliance. And they point to the recent shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as a tragic example of why further weakening the District’s gun measures would be a mistake.

Gun laws “should be not used as a bargaining chip by those in Congress who would use our city for political gain while compromising safety,” D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said.

D.C. residents pay federal taxes and fight in the military, but they have been denied a vote in Congress since 1801, a year after the capital was moved from Philadelphia.

Hopes soared for voting rights in February after senators easily passed legislation two years after a similar measure died just three votes shy of a filibuster-proof margin.

The bill would expand the House by two seats, to 437 members. To offset the certain Democratic gain from giving the District a seat, the bill adds one for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed receiving another seat after the 2000 census. The Senate version passed after lawmakers added the gun measure, and now the House is threatening to do the same.

The gun measure has voting rights advocates scrambling to come up with a plan.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the group DC Vote, thinks Congress will take up the gun issue regardless of whether it’s attached to voting rights legislation.

“We will oppose any attempt to amend the city’s gun laws, but at the same time, we don’t want to let the NRA or anyone else hold our bill hostage,” he said.

While residents wait, their optimism is quickly turning to frustration.

Neighborhood activist Sandra Seegars has been a vocal opponent of strict D.C. gun laws. She once even sued the District over its gun ban, arguing it left residents vulnerable to criminals. But she resents that the issue is being linked to voting rights and doesn’t want to compromise.

“I don’t think one should have any bearing on the other,” she said.

Bar owner Bill Duggan is also upset. He accuses the D.C. Council of needlessly provoking Congress by not acting more aggressively to ease the gun laws after the Supreme Court ruling.

Shortly before President Obama’s inauguration, Mr. Duggan commissioned a mural of the White House with a banner reading, “If you lived here you’d be home now. But you still could not vote.” He thought the mural in the busy Adams Morgan district would be painted over within weeks with the words “Free at last!”

Now he worries the District is caught in a fight it probably cannot win.

“D.C. has probably the most informed electorate in the country,” he said. “Yet the electorate is the most disenfranchised - not only in this country, but in most of the world.”

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