A Dangerous Gambit

District of Columbia residents have been rightfully excited this year about the prospects of finally gaining voting representation in the U.S. Congress. After the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” passed the House in 2007 and came tantalizing close in the Senate, the stage seemed set for victory with the election of President Barack Obama, who has stated openly he will sign the legislation if it comes to his desk. Bipartisan and vote-neutral, the Act pairs a seat for the traditionally Democratic District with an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah (the next state eligible for a seat based on U.S. Census numbers).

What should have been a day of celebration last Thursday turned into a nightmare for the District, however, when the Senate approved its version of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” S. 160, with an amendment drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

EnsignThe Ensign Amendment, sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), would gut the District of Columbia’s new gun laws entirely. D.C.’s firearm registration system would be eliminated, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would be legalized, federal anti-trafficking laws would be rolled back so that District residents could buy guns across state lines in MD and VA (without any oversight by D.C. authorities), and the D.C. Council would be prohibited from enacting any law in the future that might “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms. None of these changes to D.C.’s gun laws were called for in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court.

Speaking of the amendment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, “It’s reckless; it’s irresponsible; it will lead to more violence.” The D.C. Council was equally blunt in its assessment. “The Senate action is of huge concern,” said Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the council’s Public Safety and Judiciary Committee. “It strips our authority. The irony here is that on one hand they vote to give us voting representation, but on the other hand they strip any local representation in regards to our gun laws.”

The amendment passed the Senate on a vote of 62-36 with the support of 22 Democrats. Asked to explain the vote count, Senator Ensign (who appears to be the NRA’s new point man in the Senate with the retirement of Idaho Senator Larry Craig) said, “People are afraid.” Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, concurred with this assessment, noting, “people don’t want to vote against the National Rifle Association.”

Democrats who voted for the Ensign Amendment noted that they were not pressured by their leadership in the Senate to vote NO (Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid himself was a YES vote). It also appears that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, through their deafening silence on Thursday, signaled to Democrats that they could vote as they wished on the amendment as long as voted YES on S. 160. Delegate Norton failed to even mention the passage of the Ensign Amendment in her press release after the Senate votes, referring only obliquely to “tough anti-home rule battles.” This was in direct contrast to the action of D.C. Council members, who sent a sharply-worded letter to Senators on Thursday describing the amendment as a poison pill.

It would seem that Mayor Fenty and Delegate Norton are banking on the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” gaining approval from the House of Representatives this week without any gun amendments attached. But even though House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has branded the Ensign Amendment “inappropriate and wrong,” saying, “I hope it won’t be in the final product,” that outcome is far from certain. In fact, just this past September, 266 House Members voted to passH.R. 6842, a bill that was nearly identical to the Ensign Amendment.

And even if the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” is approved by the House without a gun amendment attached, it still has to go to a House-Senate Conference. The conference could elect to include, or not include, the Ensign Amendment. As one unnamed aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee noted, “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things that could happen.”

Finally, it should be stated that the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” is certain to draw a constitutional challenge in the courts. What would happen if the bill was signed into law with the Ensign Amendment language attached only to have its congressional representation provisions struck down shortly thereafter? At that point, D.C. residents would see their democratic aspirations vanish along with their gun laws.

A single voting representative in the House is not worth the price of increased gun violence in the District. D.C. residents have a basic right to self-determination, and that is what the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” is supposed to stand for. Should the bill, burdened with the Ensign Amendment, come up for final passage in the House, Mayor Fenty, Delegate Norton and the Democratic leadership must end their risky venture and kill the bill.

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