Tuesday, February 6, 2007

D.C. Council member Marion Barry yesterday introduced legislation that would suspend the District’s 30-year ban on handguns, providing gun owners a 90-day period to register weapons they would then be allowed to legally own.

“We are in the midst of a gun-violence epidemic,” said Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat. “We need to see gun violence as an emergency in the District of Columbia.”

Mr. Barry’s bill, which only applies to pistols, would allow D.C. residents with no criminal record to register guns for 90 days from the law’s enactment. After the 90-day period, current gun restrictions would be reinstated.

Barry spokesman Keith Perry said the bill is “an acknowledgment that people do have guns” in the District and would help police better track weapons used in the commission of crimes.

The District has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation and restricts ownership of most guns that were not registered before 1977. Privately owned rifles and shotguns must be kept at home and stored unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or a similar device.

Mr. Barry’s proposal would increase the penalties for possessing an unregistered weapon in the District from a maximum of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

A second offense could result in 30 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, according to the bill.

Mr. Barry, who was robbed at gunpoint in his Southeast apartment in January 2006, cited statistics that said police had confiscated 2,656 guns last year, with 51 percent of those weapons being seized east of the Anacostia River.

A recent Metropolitan Police Department report on homicides from 2001 to 2005 states that 901 of 1,126 homicide victims, or about 80 percent, were fatally shot.

Mr. Barry, who served four terms as D.C. mayor, also referenced the recent shooting deaths of D.C. teenagers Cynthia Gray and Taleshia Ford, both 17, in urging support for the measure.

“We all get outraged … and we all go home,” Mr. Barry said. “Nothing is done to get the guns off the streets of Washington, D.C.”

Mr. Barry’s bill was co-sponsored by council members Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat; Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat; and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat. It was referred to the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

Mr. Brown acknowledged that the bill “needs some working and flushing out” but that it was a proactive approach to taking guns off of city streets.

“To me, it’s the end result,” he said. “How do we get guns off the streets of the District of Columbia, get public input and find out how we can make the streets safer?”

Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the public safety committee, said he had reservations about aspects of the bill. He said the 90-day period during which people who have owned illegal guns can register their weapons seems “counterproductive.”

“The intent is right, to deal with gun violence,” Mr. Mendelson said. “The amnesty thing, I think, goes against the need to reduce the number of guns in our city.” He said the bill would likely be considered during the course of a larger hearing on gun violence.

Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said yesterday the organization was not sufficiently familiar with Mr. Barry’s bill to give an opinion on it but that the measure could be a tough sell in the District.

“It seems like a real uphill struggle for Mr. Barry to get a lot of broad support for something like this,” Mr. Hamm said. “Washington, D.C., is suffering from a lot of gun violence lately and to say, ‘Let’s bring more guns into the equation as a solution,’ doesn’t sound like it makes a great deal of sense.”

Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, also said Mr. Barry’s proposal was a surprise and that the organization would study the bill.

“Obviously, we support efforts to allow law-abiding residents of the District to own firearms,” Mr. Cox said. “And we will continue in those efforts.”

Congressional attempts to repeal the District’s gun ban in recent years have been criticized as attacks on the District’s right to home rule.

In 2004, the House of Representatives voted in favor of repealing the city’s restrictions on gun ownership and registration, even though the measure was opposed by the District’s mayor, 13 council members, the police chief and the city’s congressional delegate. The bill was not brought to a vote in the Senate.

A federal appeals court heard arguments in December about whether the District’s decision to prohibit residents from owning guns is a violation of the Second Amendment. That decision is pending. A U.S. District judge rejected the argument, brought by six D.C. residents, in 2005.

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