Last week, Bullet Counter Points commented on a controversial amendment to the Senate version of the D.C. voting rights bill (“A Dangerous Gambit”). Now, the legislation has been put on temporary hold as D.C. officials contemplate the price they are willing to pay for a vote in the House of Representatives.
On February 26, the Senate approved a version of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” with an amendment drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Ensign Amendment, sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), would repeal the District of Columbia’s new gun laws entirely and prohibit the D.C. Council from enacting any law in the future that would “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms. None of these changes to District’s gun laws were called for in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court. Commenting on the Senate’s passage of the amendment, Dennis Hennigan, Legal Director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “It was a craven political decision to put at risk…this community in order to curry favor with the gun lobby. That’s all that was.”
After the Senate vote, there was a tremendous outcry in the District over the Ensign Amendment. One D.C. resident who published a letter in the Washington Post summed up the fears of many of her fellow Washingtonians: “If this amendment becomes law, it would make me frightened to work and live in a city that has been my home for thirteen years.” Meanwhile, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to how the Democratic Leadership in the House would produce a clean version of the bill free of any gun amendments.
Concerned that there was no clear strategy to overcome the gun lobby’s anti-democratic campaign, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence sprang into action. We alerted D.C. residents to the danger posed to public safety by the Ensign Amendment and urged them to contact D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. On March 3, we conducted a press conference along with the D.C. Council and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence on the steps of the District Government Building. At the event, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray announced a unanimously-approved council resolution that reads: “The United States Congress must not adopt any amendment to the District of Columbia Voting Rights Act that restricts the District Government’s ability to legislate the regulation of firearms.” The Chairman of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, Phil Mendelson, spoke and said, “To deny us a vote on an issue as fundamental as guns is wrong and it is reckless. It is reckless because not only would we not be able to respond to incidents of gun violence or suggestions on how to deal with gun violence, but what the Senate has done would significantly—significantly—weaken the laws regarding guns in the District.” Council Member Mary Cheh questioned whether D.C. officials should continue to support the voting rights bill if it meant the city would have to loosen its firearms regulations, saying, “To make us swallow this without objection…we’re just lying down, just like always. What have we won?”
Within an hour of the press conference’s conclusion, the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” was pulled from consideration in the House. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) explained that he did not have enough votes to bring the bill to the floor without the possibility of amendments. The rumor had spread on Capitol Hill that the NRA would be grading procedural votes on the legislation and House Democrats from conservative and rural districts took notice. Delegate Norton accused them of “reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the NRA,” and stated that they were “doing something to kill a basic civil rights bill.”
D.C. voting rights advocates are now scrambling to lobby a group of 60+ “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House to “size up who [is] genuinely at risk” of repercussions from the NRA and to find out why these Representatives object to the District’s current gun laws. House Democratic Leaders believe they can pass a clean bill in that chamber if they secure 28 more votes in favor of blocking all amendments.
“This is hard, man,” said Delegate Norton, commenting on the lobbying effort. Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Josh Horwitz put it a different way: “There are no easy answers here … I don’t think it’s…done in the House yet, but it will take a lot of creative thinking.” Even if a voting rights bill does clear the House free of gun amendments, a final version of the legislation would have to be approved in a House-Senate Conference, and there is no guarantee the Ensign Amendment would be stripped out during such negotiations.
There’s no doubt that legislation to grant voting representation to the District is long overdue. Washingtonians should not be forced to choose democracy over their own safety, however. As D.C. Council Chairman Gray recently noted, the Ensign Amendment is “extremely offensive” to the very principle upon which the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” rests: self-determination. Hopefully, Democrats at both the federal and local level will take Gray’s assertion to heart in the crucial days ahead.