- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation Tuesday that would legalize semi-automatic handguns in the District and ease storage requirements for gun owners, while the Democrat-led Congress took steps to trump the city’s home-rule authority and set its own terms for relaxed gun ownership in the nation’s capital.

The race to comply with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that struck down the District’s handgun ban proceeded on parallel tracks, driven in part by election-year desires by congressional lawmakers from both parties to show they support gun rights.

The council passed its bill by unanimous voice vote just minutes before Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s congressional representative, testified in the House against a federal law that would further relax gun control in the District and limit city officials’ ability to regulate guns.

Mrs. Norton, a Democrat, pleaded with the House to vote against the bill, saying that the D.C. Council legislation was crafted in a way to satisfy gun advocates and that many House members were “dismayed and angered” that Congress was considering “one of the most permissive [gun] laws in the country post 9/11.”

She called the bill a “threat to the federal presence” based on testimony last week from U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police and Metropolitan Police that the law would endanger federal officials, including the president.

The District v. Heller Supreme Court decision in June struck down the city’s 32-year-old ban on handguns but has raised a host of new issues about gun rights and safety.

The District crafted its law in part to stave off the House bill, which would take away the council’s authority over local gun control, and to forestall a second federal lawsuit by Dick Anthony Heller that challenged temporary gun legislation enacted in July.

“I’m hopeful that the House will see that there’s not much more to be done,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “I assume they’re doing this thinking that we’re being irresponsible. We’re not.”

Under the new D.C. law — effective for 180 days until permanent legislation is enacted — weapons that can fire more than 12 rounds without being reloaded are no longer considered machine guns. The previous definition effectively banned all semi-automatic weapons because magazines of virtually any capacity theoretically can be designed for them.

However, the law still caps magazine capacity at 10 rounds in an effort to ensure that criminals won’t have greater firepower than police do. Those who wish to purchase guns manufactured to hold more rounds would have to buy magazines modified to hold no more than 10. Advocates said the new bill would still give law-abiding citizens sufficient rounds for self-defense.

The D.C. law, which uses language from other jurisdictions and the federal assault-weapons ban, now defines a machine gun as a weapon that shoots or can be readily modified to shoot more than one shot with a single press of the trigger.

The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Travis Childers, a conservative Mississippi Democrat, would eliminate most of the gun restrictions in the nation’s capital, including the effective ban on semi-automatic weapons by superseding the District’s definition of a machine gun.

The Childers legislation was expected to pass the House with bipartisan support, but its fate in the Senate was less certain with Congress preparing to recess by the end of the month.

Local officials argued that the federal measure goes too far and undermines local law enforcement efforts.

The bill includes measures that would restrict the council from regulating gun ownership, remove the District’s gun-registration requirement, remove criminal penalties for possessing an unregistered firearm and allow D.C. residents to purchase handguns in Maryland and Virginia.

D.C. residents currently must register firearms.

Under federal law, residents must purchase handguns in the state in which they live, but the Childers bill would make an exception for the District in regard to its two neighboring states.

The House on Tuesday also initially took up alternative legislation sponsored by Mrs. Norton that would have required the council to revise its firearm laws within 180 says to ensure they comply with the Heller decision — before the House turned its attention to the Childers measure.

Still, it’s uncertain whether the House, which was expected to vote late Tuesday or Wednesday, would immediately affect gun ownership in the District. The Senate hasn’t scheduled debate on the measure, which could be tabled until next year.

The D.C. law also includes a provision that calls for up to five years in prison for gun owners who allow a child to gain access to a firearm that results in injury or death to themselves or others.

The bill will be in effect for 90 days while the council considers permanent legislation. Hearings on the legislation have been set for Thursday and Oct. 1.

“This remains a work in process,” Mr. Mendelson said. “This is not a perfect bill.”

Council member Harry Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat, applauded Mr. Mendelson’s bill, but has been surprised by the council’s limitations regarding gun policy, particularly ownership requirements.

“We can tell people you need driver’s [education], but we can’t tell people you need to be responsible for something that was forced on the residents of this city,” Mr. Thomas said. “Any tool that you use, you must know how to use it.”

Sean Lengell contributed to this article.

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