The House Judiciary Committee’s decision last week to leave the District’s strict gun laws alone — at least for now — appears consistent with the tea party’s resistance to federal “tyranny” but at odds with the GOP-backed movement’s strict adherence to language in the Constitution.
The Republican-controlled committee voted 24-3 last week against an amendment by Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, that would allow visitors to carry concealed weapons in the District as long as they have that privilege in their home states.
But in doing so, it had to straddle the line between tea party principles of limited government and deference to local rule and its reading of the Constitution, which provides the Congress with oversight duties of the District as a “federal enclave.”
D.C. advocates for budget autonomy, a full vote in Congress or even statehood are often at loggerheads with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who must reconcile the District’s independent government with their assertion of federal powers on fragile issues such as the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.
“I get that,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on D.C. affairs. “I just think the District is constitutionally significant. It is mentioned by name in the Constitution, which makes it unique. I don’t know that my state is mentioned by name in the Constitution.”
Mr. Gowdy, who has won praise for not trying to micromanage D.C. affairs, voted “present” on Mr. Gohmert’s amendment. He said he did not run as a tea party candidate, so to say he is a member of the movement would be disingenuous.
Mr. Gohmert is part of the tea party caucus but says his District-related efforts are not tied to his membership. The committee defeated his measure largely because it would create an exception in a bill that respects local jurisdictions’ laws on the right to carry concealed firearms.
Mr. Gohmert said members of the committee and the National Rifle Association also wanted a “clean bill” to go to the House floor, so he plans to resurrect his proposal in a stand-alone bill.
The measure has outraged Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, and other advocates for D.C. autonomy, who staged a long-awaited march for “full democracy” on Saturday in conjunction with the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
Mr. Gohmert points out prior legislative efforts on behalf of the District.
In 2009, he introduced a bill that would shield D.C. residents from federal taxation because they do not have a voice in Congress. It would place the District in line with U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, he said.
Plus, those “Taxation Without Representation” license plates were hard to ignore.
“I was annoyed at first, until I realized that’s [a Colonial era] line and really unfair to the citizens of the District of Columbia,” Mr. Gohmert said.
He also introduced a bill that would cede a section of the District back to Maryland as a way to achieve full voting rights in Congress while preserving a limited, federally controlled part of the city known as the “National Capital Service Area.”
Land was ceded back from the District to Virginia in the 1800s, he noted. Debate also has recognized the need to set aside a special enclave to house the nation’s capital.
Those courses of action outlined in the bills “are not options we have embraced but are at least legitimate,” said Ilir Zherka, director of pro-home-rule group D.C. Vote.
Mr. Zherka said his group was disappointed with Mr. Gohmert’s gun measure because he appeared to be a “convert” when he introduced his bills in 2009.
“It’s a curious thing,” he said. “It really sounds like he’s trying to have it both ways.”
If GOP leaders and tea party members are proponents of local rule and states’ rights, he added, then interfering with the District “would not be keeping with these principles.”
Republican members of Congress, including Mr. Gohmert, couched the potential change to D.C. laws as a way to ensure consistent application of the constitutional right to carry firearms.
“I’m a big states’ rights guy,” Mr. Gowdy said. “But the states’ rights come in where the Constitution has not already spoken. It’s already spoken with respect to the Second Amendment.”
Still, the firestorm continues between proponents of statehood and those who view the District as an enclave controlled by Congress.
Mr. Gohmert rejects the idea of making the District the 51st state, even if a boundary is drawn around the sector of federal buildings.
“Does that mean every 600,000-person area should be a state because they don’t want to be part of an area, they want to be autonomous?” Mr. Gohmert asked. “I know parts of east Texas that want to be their own state.”