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House Bill Returns Handguns to Capital

A bill that would repeal most local gun laws in the nation's capital passed the House Wednesday, over the objections of city officials including the mayor and police chief.

"I've seen various members of Congress try to do some low down, dirty, mean things to the people of the District of Columbia, all to promote their own political agendas against the will of the people who live here," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (search), D-D.C. "This bill to repeal the city's gun safety laws ... scrapes the bottom of the lowest level yet," said Norton, who can vote on the House floor but not in committee.

The District of Columbia Personal Protection Act (search) was approved on a vote of 250-171, following a contentious debate that included everything from gun control and crime rates, to terror alerts and home rule.

The bill would repeal D.C's ban on semiautomatic weapons, allow guns and ammunition to be kept in homes and businesses, and do away with the requirement that firearms be registered. A companion Senate bill has already been withdrawn.

"This is absolutely crazy," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed and son wounded in 1993 by a gunman on a Long Island Rail Road train.

"The vast majority of Americans recognize the right to use firearms for personal protection. Only the District of Columbia prohibits a person from having a firearm assembled and loaded at home for the purpose of self-defense," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the bill's prime sponsor.

"Trying to make the case for this bill on the basis of self-defense is to dance on the graves of Chelsea Cromartie and 15 other defenseless children killed by gunfire this year," Norton said, referring to some of this year's 21 juvenile homicide victims in D.C.

Other opponents noted the nation's capital remains under a Code Orange terror alert, with checkpoints around the Capitol and street closures.

"This really makes a mockery of this whole homeland security (search) apparatus," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "Everybody can carry around open assault weapons, handguns and anything else, but in the Capitol, we're going to keep this baby locked solid," said Williams. "It doesn't make any sense."

Pointing to a chart showing a semiautomatic 50-caliber sniper weapon, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., warned, "It is capable of taking out an armored limousine from a mile away.

"Can you imagine that in the District of Columbia someone can have this assault weapon and stick it out of a window on Pennsylvania Avenue?" Waxman asked. He said the bill would "invite terrorists to bring assault weapons into the heart of the nation's capital."

Several supporters made reference to the city's murder rate, with Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., going so far as to claim Washington is more dangerous than the African cities of Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam. But Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey said they were looking back to bygone days.

"Our murder rate is just half of what it was" 12 years ago, said Ramsey. His department seizes about 2,000 illegal handguns and other weapons each year. But MPD officers are coming across more crime scenes where upwards of 40 shell casings are found near shooting victims.

"Obviously that's a sign that some sort of assault weapon was used," said Ramsey.